By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
A gay Portlander’s experience with a psychiatrist who attempted to change his sexual orientation has led a national advocacy group to file a complaint with local and national psychiatric associations.
Max Hirsh, 22, sought out psychiatric care in February 2011 for depression related to the stress of coming out. On the recommendation of another provider, Hirsh began seeing a psychiatrist (whose name has not been released for legal reasons), but early on in his treatment Hirsh saw problems with the doctor’s approach.
“I had some signs after the first couple of sessions when I was seeing this person,” Hirsch told PQ Monthly. “The first big sign that I got was when he [kept] saying that I was heterosexual, even though I explained a few times that I was gay. It was strange that he was insistent on that.”
As a result, Hirsch ceased his visits to the psychiatrist; however, out of desperation he resumed the doctor-patient relationship soon thereafter.
During these sessions, the letter of complaint asserted, the psychiatrist “made… Hirsh’s sexual orientation a central focus of the treatment. In particular. [the psychiatrist] repeatedly delved into stereotyped and discredited potential ‘causes’ of … Hirsh’s same-sex attractions, at different times suggesting that … Hirsh’s poor relationships with women, deficient bonding with men, distant relationship with his father, or his failures in sports might have ‘caused’ his homosexuality.”
The doctor allegedly prescribed for Hirsh to essentially “man up” — get into sports, engage in more traditionally masculine pursuits, deepen the relationship with his father, and seek out non-sexual “father figures” — as a treatment for his queerness. Moreover, the doctor asserted that if Hirsh were to continue to insist upon embracing his same-sex attraction he would “need to accept that his love life would always be dissatisfying, disappointing, and unstable.”
“Having [the psychiatrist] force anti-gay, pseudo-scientific stuff on me was a very shocking experience — very maddening,” Hirsh said. “It left me feeling betrayed.”
To add insult to injury, when Hirsh confronted the doctor about the practices he was incorporating, the doctor allegedly asserted that the term “homophobia” pathologizes those who dislike gay people, and that the real issue was “heterophobia” amongst the gay population.
Hirsh fired the psychiatrist last August and filed a complaint to the Oregon Medical Board about the care he received. However, the board rejected his complaint.
“It was shocking to me, as I outlined it as a violation of medical ethics, and they didn’t take it seriously for whatever reason,” he said.
In response, Hirsh contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), where deputy legal director Christine Sun took action. Partnering with Portland attorney Beth Allen, the SPLC sent a letter of complaint to both the Oregon Psychiatric Association (OPA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) on May 8 charging that Hirsh’s psychiatrist committed what Sun describes as “an appalling violation of physician ethics, as well as a breach of a client’s trust.”
Sun and Allen are optimistic about the APA’s response to the complaint.
“The APA has taken a strong stance against conversion therapy,” Sun said, “and also taken a strong stand in favor of patients knowing what type of therapy the psychiatrist is performing on them.”
However, the process is in the beginning stages. “Right now it’s in what I would call ‘the conversation’ stage,” Allen said, “the point at which we can see whether we can talk about what has happened and can reach some resolution for our client that may be meaningful for others that may run into similar situations.”
The attorneys hope to hear from the APA as to whether the association will open up an investigation through their own ethics committee soon.
If nothing else, Allen hopes that this case will help to highlight that, as comfortable as life can be for queer people in liberal cities such as Portland, we have quite a ways to go before we are at a place of full equality.
“I think that one key thing is that this reminds us that we have not gotten there yet,” she said. “Sometimes I think, especially in Portland, we think that we are just about there — we have registration of domestic partnerships, laws that protect us in our jobs and housing. However, in the day-to-day lives of LGBT folks, there is a lot of work to be done, and this [case] is a prime example.”