SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Throughout adolescence and much of college, Aaron Bitzer did not openly acknowledge his sexual attraction to men, and when in his 20s he finally revealed the truth to a church minister, he found it tough to get the support and guidance he needed.
Now, Bitzer is one of three plaintiffs challenging California’s new law that prohibits licensed mental-health professionals from helping minors change or reduce their same-sex attraction.
The lawsuit alleges that the banning of “sexual-orientation change efforts” for minors, irrespective of their wishes or beliefs — or those of their parents or of their chosen therapists — constitutes a violation of constitutionally protected free speech, religious freedom and the right to privacy.
Bitzer got involved in the case because he was helped by one form of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, and he now hopes to receive professional training that will enable him to assist others dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction. The ban, he argues, will unlawfully prevent him from pursuing his chosen path.
“I voluntarily signed up for treatment. I never felt more free to be myself,” Bitzer told the Register, criticizing what he viewed as a mischaracterization of “sexual-orientation change efforts” as always coercive and damaging.
Bitzer and two other plaintiffs, including Dr. Jeffrey Duk, a California-based psychiatrist and a Catholic who has offered reparative therapy, will have their first day in court on Dec. 3.
During the scheduled hearing at a federal trial court in Sacramento, Calif., lawyers with the Pacific Justice Institute, a public interest group that specializes in parental rights and First Amendment cases, will ask for a preliminary injunction blocking the state law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1.
In papers filed with the court, the lawsuit alleges that the ban “violates the fundamental right to privacy in that it … prevents minors from accessing mental-health services and treatment that would assist them in diminishing same-sex attraction in accordance with self-defined religious, moral, cultural and philosophical beliefs.”
The law “instead requires minors to accept as fact the state’s definition of their sexuality, regarding of their religious, moral, cultural and philosophical beliefs.”
But supporters of the California law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, say it will save lives and prevent “dangerous” sexual-orientation change efforts that can foster depression and self-hatred in young people struggling with homosexual inclinations.
“The plain fact is that every mainstream medical and mental-health association in the country has warned that these practices are ineffective and deadly,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in a published statement.
“The state has the right and obligation to protect young people from this psychological abuse, which can lead to depression, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide. We know this law will save lives.”
California is the first U.S. state to ban reparative therapy, and Liberty Counsel, a public interest group, is representing another group of plaintiffs, including the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), who have also sued to block the law.
Meanwhile, a similar bill will soon be introduced in the New Jersey Legislature, and on Nov. 27, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., announced that she had proposed a resolution asking Congress to denounce “sexual-orientation change efforts.” The congresswoman said she would also investigate whether Medicaid funds were being used to reimburse therapists that provide such treatment.
To some extent, the debate over the efficacy and potential harm of sexual-orientation change efforts serves as a placeholder for the broader, more passionate debate about the origins of same-sex attraction and also about whether social affirmation of homosexual behavior will heal the wounds of ostracism and self-hatred or leave serious emotional issues unresolved.
If same-sex attraction is inborn, therapy designed to overcome such inclinations could be counterproductive and deeply destructive. But if sexual orientation has been strongly influenced by external factors, including family dynamics and childhood sexual abuse, then the treatment could help individuals distressed by their condition.
Reparative-therapy practitioners note that male homosexuals report much higher rates of early sexual abuse than men in the general population, and treatment can help them deal with childhood trauma, among other issues.
Critics of the therapy assert that arguments that blame outside influences on sexual orientation lead patients to hold their families responsible for their condition, even as they pursue fruitless, sometimes bizarre treatment that can deepen suicidal impulses.
To take one example, a Nov. 27 New York Times story about a New Jersey lawsuit filed by four Jewish men who sought to change their sexual orientation provided lurid details of “humiliating techniques that included stripping naked in front of the counselor and beating effigies of their mothers.”
Such stories are common in media accounts of efforts to change sexual orientation, but supporters of reparative therapy say the lurid accounts do not do justice to the full range of approaches that include one-on-one counseling and support groups, as well as more intense forms of treatment.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to a request for comment about the California law or legislative efforts in other states to ban reparative therapy.
The Catholic Church prohibits all nonmarital sexual activity, including homosexual unions, and opposes same-sex “marriage.” However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the U.S. bishops’ “Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination” reject discrimination against homosexuals and call for pastoral outreach that affirms the dignity of persons with same-sex attraction. One such apostolate, Courage, has been established in a growing number of U.S. dioceses.
Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, expressed dismay at the new trend: “I am concerned that a whole avenue of assistance is being closed down for people who are suffering,” he told the Register, and he invited individuals seeking assistance to contact Courage in their diocese.
He also directed Catholics to a Vatican document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education in the Family,” which was issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1995.
The document states, “Young people need to be helped to distinguish between the concepts of what is normal and abnormal, between subjective guilt and objective disorder, avoiding what would arouse hostility.”
The document also says, “If parents notice the appearance of this tendency or of related behavior in their children during childhood or adolescence, they should seek help from expert qualified persons in order to obtain all possible assistance.”
The point, Father Check said, is that the Church is concerned for the whole person. “And in the mind of the Church, the psychological sciences, in accord with Christian anthropology, are not considered separate from pastoral care, but rather integral to it.”
Carol Hogan, a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, said it had opposed the law, but would play no role in the Pacific Justice Institute’s lawsuit.
“We opposed the law because it constituted an infringement of parental rights. This bans reparative therapy for minors, even if the minor themselves or the parents want the therapy. That is awfully invasive on the part of the legislature, which has no competence in this area,” said Hogan.
She noted that the law offered no exemption for clergy, religious or spiritual counselors who are licensed by the state.
“Often, confused feelings regarding sexual attraction will prompt someone to seek spiritual counseling,” said Hogan.
Matt McReynolds, the staff attorney at the Pacific Justice Institute who will represent the three plaintiffs in the Sacramento District Court, said he hoped to draw the court’s attention to the problems posed by the law’s broad prohibition against “sexual-orientation change efforts.”
“It assumes that every person going to that kind of therapy is being coerced and if they knew what was good for them they would go the other way. But most people who work in reparative therapy are adamant that they don’t try to change anyone who doesn’t want to change,” he said.
Aaron Bitzer echoed that claim, “I know a few therapists in this field; they follow the clients’ views.” And in his experience, people in support groups or seeking one-on-one therapy are often motivated by a desire to square their sexual desires with their faith.
“I am a Christian, and when I was in college, I was finally able to admit those attractions; but church ministers didn’t know what to say,” he recalled, underscoring the need for experienced therapists in religious communities.
Brad Dacus, the president of the Pacific Justice Institute, charges that the California law will “force young people needing assistance to choose between getting help from an untrained counselor who is respectful of their faith or from a licensed counselor who may have no respect for their faith.”
The lawsuit names as defendants California Gov. Brown and more than 20 other state officials, including members of the California Board of Behavioral Sciences.
Professional organizations, including the California Psychological Association, also backed the bill, and advocates of the measure frequently cite a 2009 American Psychology Association report on “sexual-orientation change efforts (SOCE),” which noted that for some individuals undergoing this treatment “[d]istress and depression were exacerbated.” The report directed health-care professionals not to foster stigmatization of people with same-sex attraction or promote therapies that did not work.
The report acknowledged that within the mental-health field “SOCE has been controversial due to tensions between the values held by some faith-based organizations on the one hand and those held by lesbian, gay and bisexual rights organizations and professional and scientific organizations on the other.”
But while members of the APA taskforce expressed clear discomfort with the aim of reparative therapy, their actual findings were inconclusive: “There are no studies of adequate scientific rigor to conclude whether or not recent SOCE do or do not work to change a person’s sexual orientation.”
Concerns about the safety of the treatment were also aired in the report, but did not include a blanket condemnation:
“Although sound data on the safety of SOCE are extremely limited, some individuals reported being harmed by SOCE. Distress and depression were exacerbated.”
‘Lively Exchange’ Expected
The Dec. 3 hearing in Sacramento will provide a forum for advocates and opponents of the therapy to take their positions in a debate that shows no signs of losing energy.
Matt McReynolds, the Pacific Justice Institute attorney, looked forward to “a lively exchange” at Monday’s hearing. “The court will have a lot of questions for us and for the state, and there is no way to predict an outcome.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.