Conversion therapy is happening underground in Iowa, LGBT advocates say. Some lawmakers are trying to stop it.

Peter Nunn was sent to Sioux City, Iowa as a teenager and spent two weeks at a conversion therapy program. (Photo courtesy of Peter Nunn)

When Peter Nunn was 14 years old, his parents found a men’s workout magazine he owned and came to their own conclusions about his sexual orientation.

His father decided to take him on a trip away from their home near Atlanta, but declined to tell him where they were going until their layover in St. Louis.

It was then he revealed that on the advice of a religious organization, they were going to Sioux City where he told his son he was going to get counseling to help, “whatever weird sexual s— I had going on,” Nunn said.

For two weeks, Nunn attended a counseling center that didn’t advertise a conversion therapy service, but as a place that specialized in “spiritual warfare.”

He attended the center for two weeks and spoke with therapists who asked him about his faith, body and sexual desires. They told him that if he didn’t fix himself, he would spend eternity in hell and die alone of AIDS.

“I was really impressionable and bought into it 110%,” Nunn said. “They said there was something broken about me that I needed fixed.”

For the next five years, he prayed to God to fix him and chastised himself for every thought about men that he had.

At 16, he tried to die by suicide.

“If I could have changed, there’s no doubt in my mind I would have,” Nunn said.

Peter Nunn (right) with his husband, Monte. (Photo courtesy of Peter Nunn)

When he turned 20, Nunn came out to his parents. His mother eventually learned to accept him and attended his wedding six years ago.

Nunn is now the happiest he’s ever been as a 33-year-old salon owner in Atlanta, he said. 

But he contends, he’s one of the lucky ones. The center he went to is still in existence today.

“There’s so many people who never make it through it,” Nunn said.

Conversion therapy goes by other names in Iowa

A Google search of conversion therapy in Iowa won’t reveal facilities explicitly offering the service, which claims to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

But start using different terminology like “reparative therapy” or in Nunn’s example, “spiritual warfare” and more coded language pops up.

“It used to be called conversion therapy,” said Sam Brinton of The Trevor Project, a non-profit group dedicated to preventing LGBT suicides. “Then they called it reparative therapy. Unwanted same-sex attraction. Praying the gay away. There’s a million terms for different ways of harming youth for this practice — it just depends on how you want to advertise it.”

In the Iowa Legislature, Republicans and Democrats introduced bills to ban licensed mental health providers from practicing conversion therapy. The House bill died on Wednesday however, while the Senate bill has not been brought up yet in a subcommittee. It has two days left to move forward in subcommittee during the Legislature’s funnel week for a chance to survive and become law.

Conversion therapy is happening in Iowa, but to avoid negative stigmas, organizations aren’t openly advertising their services as conversion therapy, said Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, an LGBT advocacy group that works with students.

The Trevor Project receives weekly calls from students going through conversion therapy, including teens from Iowa, Brinton said. Monson said students from both urban and rural Iowa school districts share their stories with him some of them not realizing they went through conversion therapy, he said.

When some parents first learn their child may be gay, their first instinct is to start calling around or ask a clergy member for help, Monson said.

Most of the time, parents will be referred to mental health counselors who will try to work with them and their children to better understand each other. Others, however, will get referred to someone who claims they can “fix” their child.

Historically, conversion therapy may have involved sending kids to camps or even physical abuse, but in 2020, Monson said the primary method is talk therapy. Counselors will try to teach kids how to be more masculine or feminine — often blaming their mothers for expressing too much affection and fathers for acting distant, Monson said.

“We don’t blame the parents (for attempting conversion therapy) because parents, they just love their kid. How can I help my kid? But we have to get the myths out of the way about what it means to be LGBTQ,” Monson said. “There’s this concept that you can fix someone or that it’s a choice to be LGBTQ.” 

Other states are moving to ban conversion therapy

In most of the U.S., performing conversion therapy on minors isn’t prohibited, but a push by LGBT advocates and changes in public sentiment have resulted in a record number of states enacting new laws in the past two years.

A 2019 survey by JAMA Network showed a connection between transgender kids who underwent conversion therapy treatments and increased suicide attempts. Medical professional organizations, like the American Psychological Association, have denounced the practice.

Utah became the most recent state to ban conversion therapy on minors when its Republican governor signed an executive order on Jan. 21. It is the 19th jurisdiction to prohibit the practice on kids.

Efforts to pass a ban started in the Iowa Legislature in 2015, but a bill prohibiting the practice died in the House. The next year, advocates went to the Iowa Board of Medicine, which declined to take action on a ban. That same year, the Iowa Board of Psychology said it supported banning conversion therapy, but declined to take up a vote, saying it should be a legislative initiative, according to WHO-HD.

This year, with Republicans controlling the legislative majority and governor’s office, Iowa Safe Schools is doubling down on its efforts to pass legislation that bans conversion therapy for minors and creates safety nets in case a kid is sent out-of-state for treatment.

Even though at least a dozen bills targeting the LGBT community were introduced this year by Republicans, Monson said their initiative has bipartisan support.

“At the end of the day, it’s about kids and protecting them. There’s not a good political argument against that,” Monson said. “It’s not a winning issue.”

Iowa House and Senate are taking different approaches

While there is bipartisan support for a ban, how that’s enacted looks different in both chambers.

The House State Government subcommittee met on Wednesday to debate a bill that bans conversion therapy. The bill failed to move forward. (Photo by: Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In the Iowa Senate, the Democratic caucus sponsored a bill that prohibits any licensed mental health providers from performing conversion therapy. It also bans homes and facilities that offer foster care to practice conversion therapy, as more LGBT kids and teens are susceptible to homelessness. The bill also offers guidance to mandatory reporters on how to see signs of conversion therapy practice, particularly for kids who are undergoing the practice through an unlicensed person.

Meanwhile, the House bill was introduced by the House State Government Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, a Wilton Republican.

Like the other bill, it prohibits licensed mental health therapists in Iowa from practicing conversion therapy on a minor, but it does not include the foster care or mandatory reporter sections. It also contains a clause that exempts religious leaders from penalties if they are primarily coming from a spiritual perspective instead of counseling.

Kaufmann said his bill mirrors the law in Utah.

“I’ve had several meetings with constituents in the LGBTQ community who have moved me with the alarming suicide rates that are associated with conversion therapy,” Kaufmann said. “I think the right thing to do is offer up a solution.”

The House held a subcommittee to debate the bill in the middle of funnel week, ahead of a committee deadline lawmakers use to determine which bills move forward.

Daniel Sunne from The Family Leader, a conservative religious organization, opposed the bill and said it prohibits mental health professionals from expressing certain beliefs. He said that conversion therapy is not practiced in Iowa and that the bill does not solve anything.

“Everyone opposes it because basically nobody does it,” Sunne said.

Both Iowa Safe Schools and One Iowa Action, well-known LGBT advocacy groups in the state, stated they were undecided on the House bill because of the religious exemption and lack of safety net

Kaufmann, who decided to not move his bill forward this year, said he is open to adopting the Senate version. His goal was to bring a bill to subcommittee this year because he heard “whispers” from both Democrats and Republicans who talked about supporting a ban this year and wanted to open it to public discussion.

He said he is going to continue working on a bill for next year or consider adopting the Senate bill if it advances.

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann is a Wilton Republican. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

“I think the House version has problems when even the group supporting a ban don’t agree on this particular version,” Kaufmann said, though he said he started working with Iowa Safe Schools on drafting legislation in December.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, who helped introduce the bill on the Senate side, said it’s important to protect kids from the traumatizing and harmful influence of conversion therapy.

But he also acknowledged the Senate Human Resources subcommittee has not assigned the bill to a meeting yet. If it doesn’t get brought up, it will die this week.

“I feel it’s important to be realistic. It will be an uphill battle,” Wahls said. “I hope we see some Republicans speak up on this issue. I think the volume of bills introduced against LGBT people absolutely underscores the need for this legislation.”

Monson agrees. Some Republicans like Kaufmann have already shown public support for the issue.

When legalizing gay marriage was a big issue in the Iowa Legislature, LGBT advocates appealed to Democrats, but now, they should also be reaching out to Republicans as well, he said. 

What may be difficult for leadership is dealing with the “die-hard,” group that continues to push bills targeting the LGBT community. But during an election year, he said a vote on the bill seems like a win-win situation.

“People have a gay kid or lesbian niece. It’s amazing what we’re finding when we’re talking to folks,” Monson said. “You’re voting against your family member. That’s not a comfortable Thanksgiving dinner.” 

Sen. Annette Sweeney, chair of the Senate Human Resources committee said on Monday she was unsure if the bill will be taken up this week.

Nunn, who now volunteers with The Trevor Project, said even if legislators don’t believe it’s okay for someone to be gay or transgender, he wants them to recognize the harm conversion therapy has had on him and other kids.

“Even if you don’t believe people should be gay, this practice has been proven to be harmful and damaging,” Nunn said. “It’s pretty hard for anyone to look in my face and tell me they think this doesn’t hurt people.”