Campaign to limit ‘ex-gay’ therapy intensifies

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California Sen. Ted Lieu

California senators have said no way to “ex-gay” therapy for minors.

Lawmakers in all 50 states may someday say the same if a campaign to dismantle the so-called “ex-gay” industry is successful.

In California, an effort is under way to pass legislation barring “ex-gay” therapy for minors.

“The entire medical community is opposed to these phony therapies. Everyone agrees that this quackery needs to stop,” says California Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who introduced S.B. 1172. The bill contends that the state has a compelling interest to protect LGBT youth by prohibiting “ex-gay” therapy for children under 18.

The senate passed the bill on May 31. Approval from the general assembly – which could come very soon – and Gov. Jerry Brown is still needed before the state has the first law in the U.S. cracking down on a therapy denounced by lawmakers, medical professionals, mental health practitioners and former patients as phony, fraudulent and dangerous, with potentially fatal consequences.

After California, gay activist Wayne Besen says that he and others will work to pass similar legislation in other states, probably beginning in Vermont, where he lives and runs Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit that counters the “ex-gay” movement.

“This bill is an inspiration,” Besen says. “We believe that nobody should be subject to this … quack therapy.”

Known as reorientation, reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy, the practice attempts to change a subject’s sexual orientation.

The expansive 2007 “Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation” offers a history of sexual orientation change efforts and an analysis of their effects.

The idea of change is rooted in psychoanalytic therapy as it developed in the early half of the 20th century, when same-sex sex was seen as criminal and homosexuality was viewed as a problem to cure. But even then Sigmund Freud acknowledged that his effort to induce change failed, and he wrote that psychoanalysts could not promise to “abolish  homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, behavior therapists used aversion therapy, inducing nausea or vomiting or providing electric shocks when patients showed same-sex arousal. Other techniques included hypnosis, orgasmic reconditioning, social skills training and religious prayer.

After the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, the mainstream practice of “ex-gay” therapy began to fade. According to the APA, therapists “became increasingly concerned that aversive therapies designed as SOCE for homosexuality were inappropriate, unethical, and inhumane” and study after study showed that enduring change was uncommon.

Still, the 2007 APA task force report on the issue observes, “The visibility of SOCE has increased in the last decade. … From our survey of recent publications and research, most SOCE currently seem directed to those holding conservative religious and political beliefs, and recent research on SOCE includes almost exclusively individuals who have strong religious beliefs.”

Lieu, whose district includes portions of Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Pedro, says he introduced his bill to protect LGBT youth from the practice because “being lesbian or gay or bisexual is not a disease or mental disorder for the same reason that being a heterosexual is not a disease or a mental disorder. And the medical community is unanimous in stating that homosexuality is not a medical condition.”

In the California Senate, there was no spoken opposition before the 23-13 vote on Lieu’s bill.

However, some groups have complained that the measure would interfere with parents’ rights to seek psychological care for their children. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality or NARTH opposes the legislation, as does the Pacific Justice Institute.

PJI maintains a blanket ban on one type of therapy or counseling is unconstitutional.

NARTH president Christopher Rosik called the senate vote “another triumph of political activism over objective science” and his organization maintains the measure “transfers the oversight of proper psychological care from mental health professionals and licensing boards into the hands of politicians.”

But numerous medical and mental health organizations in addition to the APA – the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Counseling Association, American Medical Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association and National Association of Social Workers – have condemned the therapy.

In mid-May, the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the World Health Organization, issued a statement that ex-gay therapy has no medical justification and is “a serious threat to the health and well-being” of patients. The organization also called on governments, academic institutions and professional associations to expose “ex-gay” practices.

Also this spring, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer renounced a controversial 2001 study in which he concluded “the majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year.”

Spitzer, who has apologized to “any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy,” decided the reports of change, based on 200 interviews with clients in “ex-gay” programs at NARTH and Exodus International, were not credible.

His study, introduced at a psychiatry meeting in 2001, was called “explosive” in an Associated Press report, because Spitzer had helped lead the campaign in the early 1970s to have homosexuality declassified as a mental disorder by the APA.

Spitzer’s recent apology and request for a retraction of the study also proved explosive, because for 11 years Christian right groups have cited his work to defend “ex-gay” therapy as effective.

Besen says with the California legislation, opponents of “ex-gay” therapy are going after the suppliers in the industry; much of the focus in the past has been on diminishing demand – educating gays, their relatives and their spiritual leaders about the damage caused by “ex-gay” therapy and “ex-gay” ministries.

On the supply side, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified at least 70 therapists who advertise the practice in 20 states and the District of Columbia.