October 1, 2012 9:43 am
In California, it’s no longer legal to try to cure young people of homosexuality. A law signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday states that mental health providers cannot attempt to change minors’ sexuality through therapies, including anything that tries to “change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”
Former patients were among the key voices in the ban, describing the difficulties and emotional trauma these therapies entailed. Along with them, a whole list of mental health professionals supported the ban, including the California Board of Behavioral Science, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the California Psychological Association.
The bill was sponsored by California Senator Ted Lieu, who argued that these attempts to change the sexual orientation of youth were not only harmful but unethical and based on bogus science. “The bill is necessary because children were being psychologically abused by reparative therapists who would try to change the child’s sexual orientation. An entire house of medicine has rejected gay conversion therapy. Not only does it not work but it is harmful. Patients who go through this have gone through guilt and shame, and some have committed suicide,” Lieu told NBC News.
The Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative group, plans to file a lawsuit against California for violating constitutional protections like the free speech rights of therapists. Brad Dacus, president of the institute, said in a statement, “Of all the freedom-killing bills we have seen in our legislature the last several years, this is among the worst.”
Gay rights groups, on the other hand, supported the bill as protecting children from unproven and potentially damaging treatments. In their petition to Jerry Brown in favor of the bill, the Human Rights Campaign wrote:
A report by the Human Rights Campaign recently found that the number one stress facing LGBT youth is a fear of acceptance — and that 63 percent of youth have heard negative messaging about being LGBT from elected officials.
Your support for SB 1172 would send a strong message to LGBT youth everywhere that their lives are valuable and they are perfect just the way they are.
Of course, some people really do believe they can change children’s sexual identity. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) opposed the bill, claiming that its therapists could indeed change sexual orientation without harm to the patient. In a statement, they claimed that Liu’s bill was based on a “complete lack of scientific basis.” They argue that because there is little or no rigorous research on the techniques used to convert children (as determined by a literature search), there was not sufficient evidence to ban the practice. They write:
Without a basis in the scientific literature, the claims by Sen. Lieu and SB 1172 of widespread harms to minors from SOCE represent rhetoric, not research. My database search suggests this is a superfluous piece of legislation from the perspective of harm. Any harm that might occur from the unprofessional practice of SOCE by licensed therapists can and should be handled within the existing regulatory structures on a case-by-case basis.
The International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (ISPN) argues, however, that these therapies treated a problem that didn’t exist. Homosexuality is no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook for diagnosing psychiatric disorders. In their position statement, the ISPN writes:
Aside from the ethical principles of autonomy, justice and beneficence that these practices violate, these therapies have questionable outcomes regarding effectiveness in actually changing a person’s sexual orientation. In fact “reparative or conversion therapies” have not supported authentic change in sexual orientation itself. In cases where homosexual behavior changed to heterosexual behavior, the behavioral changes were short-lived. Sexual orientation itself was not changed because the complex set of attractions and feelings that constitute sexual orientation had not changed (Herek, 1999).
At least two studies cited by the ISPN were missed by the NARTH search, including the one cited in that quote.
California is the first state to ban such therapies, but Brown, Liu and others hope that other states will follow their lead.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.