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Without licenses, conversion therapists in Arizona operate with relative impunity

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LOOKOUT is a nonprofit news outlet focused on Arizona’s LGBTQ+ communities. Sign up for their newsletter here

For years, Elena Joy Thurston thought love wasn't real, and everyone else was faking it. So in 2017, when she realized she had feelings for another woman, she was elated.

“All of a sudden falling in love, feeling all those things that they talked about in romance novels and movies and such, and actually realizing it was—people actually do experience this,” she said.

But Elena was a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and she was already married to a man. For three weeks, Elena secretly texted and met up with the woman she fell for. When her husband found out, Elena believed she had to confess and repent to her bishop. If he forgave her, she would be free of sin.

“I was told I wasn't making any progress,” she said. “And a friend told me, ‘There's a guy in town. I think he fixes this stuff. Do you want to talk to him?’”

That guy was Wayne Johnson, and Elena went to him to try and change her sexuality through a process known as conversion therapy. For six months, she spent eight hours a week with him. Wayne's process involves talking through Elena's childhood memories, searching for a moment where a man might have traumatized her.

But it didn't work, and when Elena shared traumatic experiences with Johnson over and over again without feeling any change in her sexuality, she began spiraling into depression and suicidal thoughts. As it turns out, Johnson wasn't actually a therapist at all, at least not a licensed one. Elena says he described himself as a mental health coach. Johnson didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.

According to data from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, licensed therapists make up only about a third of conversion therapists currently practicing in the United States.

“In Arizona, we're tracking 32 licensed conversion therapists that are active and 62 unlicensed,”

This is Matthew Shurka, the co-founder of the Born Perfect program, which identifies conversion therapists.

Those unlicensed conversion therapists include ministers and church leaders, as well as life coaches like Wayne Johnson, and most conversion therapy bands in the United States only affect licensed medical providers.

Arizona's Board of Behavioral Health examiners already considers conversion therapy to be unprofessional conduct and counselors found doing it could lose their license to practice. However, the loss of a license doesn't mean they have to stop working with clients.

One prominent Arizona conversion therapist Floyd Godfrey worked as a licensed counselor for more than two decades and founded Family Strategies Counseling Center in Mesa. In a video recorded for the group, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, Godfrey described his belief that trauma and a lack of proper attachments growing up was the cause of being gay.

Godfrey lost his license in 2023, after the board received four sexual harassment complaints against him.

Today, Godfrey advertises himself as an unlicensed mental health coach, offering sessions to help clients with unwanted same sex attraction. Godfrey denied the harassment allegations in an emailed statement.

Shortly afterwards, Family Strategies sent a cease and desist letter barring LOOKOUT from contacting any of its staff.

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