Considering California's ban on 'gay conversion therapy'

By Michael Yudell

On Sunday, the state of California became the first in the nation to ban the use of gay ‘conversion therapy’ for minors. “This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” California Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement.

Mainstream mental health organizations have long decried the use of what has alternatively been known as conversion therapy, reparative therapy, sexual orientation change efforts, or sexual reorientation therapy. No matter its name, this form of treatment purports to be able to “treat” an individual’s unwanted same-sex desires and change their sexual orientation.

The problem with reparative therapy is that it is based on the long-debunked idea that homosexuality is a disease and can be treated as such. Scientific claims that homosexuality was a sexual deviancy were developed during the late 19th and early 20th century as psychiatrists and other medical professionals paid increasing attention to the sexual behaviors of men and women, particularly those living in cities in the United States and Europe.

It wasn’t, however, until 1973, after almost a century of the medical profession using science to justify homophobia, that the American Psychiatric Association removed language describing homosexuality as a pathology from the second edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-II). A revision of the DSM-III, published in 1987, saw the last vestiges of scientifically justified homophobia removed from its pages.

Times have changed, and today the American Psychiatric Association “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as "reparative" or conversion therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”

Still, these types of therapies persist. Marcus Bachmann, husband of Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, runs a counseling center that has been accused of practicing conversion therapy. And there is even an organization, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, dedicated to furthering this absurd practice. According to the organization’s website, “NARTH is a professional, scientific organization that offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality.”

You may remember the case of former NARTH scientific advisor and long-time anti-gay extremist and advocate of reparative therapy George Rekers, whose so-called “unwanted homosexuality” led him to hire a gay escort to accompany him on a 10-day vacation. So much for the success of reparative therapy. As Frank Rich wrote about the Rekers affair in 2010, “Thanks to Rekers's clownish public exposure, we now know that his professional judgments are windows into his cracked psyche, not gay people's ... . His excursions into public policy have had real and damaging consequences on a large swath of Americans.” 

Dr. Randall Sell, Associate Professor and Director of the Program for LGTB Health at the Drexel University School of Public Health, says that “the existence of reparative therapy is enough to frighten gay and lesbian youth, and can thus have an indirect impact on their mental health.”

Sell believes that over the past one hundred years we’ve come full circle. Beginning in the early 20th century “when gays were arrested and imprisoned for same-sex sexual behavior,” Sell says, “doctors began arguing this was the wrong approach and that homosexuality was a disease they could cure.” He reminds us, however, “today every major medical and psychological association denounces the cure of homosexuality, and the Supreme Court has ruled that laws against same-sex sexual behavior are unconstitutional.” 

“Now the legal system wants to control the fringes of the medical profession to protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals,” Sell points out. “And this is a good thing,” he adds.

Government has regulated other types of therapy that can be harmful to patients. And the practices of medical and mental health professionals are more generally regulated to protect the vulnerable through Institutional Review Boards, the Food and Drug Administration, and by professional societies and state licensing boards that issue codes of practice and conduct.

In his statement Governor Brown reminded the public that the practices now banned in his state “have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.” Well, at least in California, which is a great start. Legislatures around the country should pick up this issue immediately to help protect our youth, particularly young gay and lesbian teens who may be vulnerable to these dangerous ideas.

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