California is poised to become the first state in the country to ban “conversion” or “reparative” therapy for minor – treatments that claim to stop a young person from being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or to reverse such tendencies.
Proponents of the law say top mental-health organizations agree that such practices are not only misguided but also dangerous, potentially leading to anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and even suicide. Opponents say there is more than 100 years of professional and scientific literature on the subject of sexual-orientation change, offering a strong case that, for at least some people, sexual orientation can be modified.
Legal challenges could follow, though scholars suggest that the measure appears to be a straightforward attempt to protect public safety on a matter generally governed by state law. If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) – who has not taken any public stance on the issue – it could be followed by similar laws in blue states nationwide.
Known as Senate Bill 1172, the bill passed the California Assembly Tuesday, 52 to 21, and now returns to the Senate, where it previously passed, 23 to 13, for a concurrence vote on amendments. Then, it would go to Governor Brown’s desk.
Gay-rights groups have been quick to applaud the bills author, Sen. Ted Lieu (D).
“These dangerous, unscientific practices have caused too many young people to take their own lives or suffer lifelong harm after being told, falsely, that who they are – and who they love – is wrong, sick, or the result of personal or moral failure,” said Clarissa Filgioun, Equality California board president.
She says some of the techniques used by these practitioners include the use of shame, verbal abuse, pornography, and even aversion training. The American Psychological Association, she notes, reviewed published reports about such treatments and issued a report concluding there is no evidence that such practices work, and that they’re based on the “false belief that being gay is an illness or a disorder.”
SB 1172 advocates cite the case of Ryan Kendall, who was subjected to these treatments by a licensed California therapist as a teenager and, earlier this year, told the California Legislature that the experience “destroyed my life and tore apart my family."
"In order to stop the therapy that misled my parents into believing that I could somehow be made straight, I was forced to run away from home, surrender myself to the local department of human services, and legally separate myself from my family,” he added in testimony to the Assembly.
But Joseph Nicolosi, who has written four books on the subject and founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), says the new law is dangerously constrictive and too broad.
“We don’t believe there is such a thing as a gay teen, because no teen is mature enough to define himself as gay. We’re not out to change them so much as investigate," says Mr. Nicolosi. "The danger of this law is that it tries to kill simple attempts at understanding by saying gayness is static and ‘How dare you try to change someone’s personhood?’ ”
He puts forward the case of David Pickup, who came to therapy after noticing his attraction to males.
“We traced my depression and emotions and gender confusions to being abused sexually as a child,” says Mr. Pickup, who has since studied with Nicolosi and now runs a practice of his own in Glendale, Calif. “This therapy helped me to identify my issues of unmet approval and need for self-esteem, and simultaneously I noticed that my occasional erotic attraction to men wasn’t there anymore, and my attraction to women increased 100 percent. Reparative therapy helped save my life.”
Beyond the anecdotes of each side, however, the real issue is that there is no good, neutral evidence to say the practice is generally beneficial, says Ben Caldwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
“What’s good news about this legislation is that the language of the law is so well-crafted that is spells out that it applies only to minors who are entering therapy not of their own accord,” says Dr. Caldwell. “That’s how all these professional organizations were able to sign on to it.”
That could also mean the law is likely to withstand potential legal challenges. “It’s pretty standard to have regulations that say what licensed professionals are allowed to do, and this would be no different from regulations that affect lawyers and doctors,” says Doug Nejaime, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
The only legal concern seen by James Kushner, a constitutional lawyer at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, is a potential case of a minor who is admittedly confused about his sexual orientation. Therapists might be loath to approach the subject for fear of running afoul of the law.
He says: "There are likely to be clients who are confused over sexual orientation and sexual roles, and a professional may be concerned that conversation or advice on feelings experienced may be interpreted by the client, family, or others as falling within the statute."