Thirty years ago, Jack decided to seek help from a therapist, in part to find out why he was attracted to other men.
“I knew my life was a mess, and I wanted to discover why — what’s going on here.” Although Jack (not his real name) was hoping that, through therapy, he might no longer be attracted to other men and perhaps eventually marry a woman, he was pleased to be able to reach a point where his same-sex attraction was greatly diminished. And, he said, “I recaptured my own sense of masculinity. I feel confident in myself as a man and being able to express myself as a man.”
Jack said this occurred in the context of talking with his therapist about his family life and experiences growing up.
“I think people honestly need therapy when they’re same-sex attracted, not per se to convert them, but to help them understand why they are like that, because a lot of times it’s family dynamics.” His therapist, he added, helped him to come to such an understanding. “He wasn’t into conversion.”
Yet new laws being proposed and passed around the country to ban so-called conversion therapy for people who want help with same-sex attraction or gender-identity confusion could ultimately impact even the kind of counseling Jack said benefited him.
According to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a think tank on “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) issues, nine states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, plus 34 cities and counties, have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors.
Furthermore, such laws have been introduced in more than 20 other states, including Washington, where a bill is expected to pass soon. In addition, in New York, executive orders block insurance companies from covering conversion therapy, and in some cities and counties, the therapy bans cover adults as well as minors.
Such laws typically bar licensed counselors from providing any “harmful” therapy that attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity. In proposing such laws, advocates often cite practices like electroshock therapy and induced vomiting that they claim have been used to reorient same-sex attraction or gender identity.
Yet, according to Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies with the Family Research Council, there is little evidence that such practices and even the use of sexual-reorientation therapy are widespread.
“Ironically,” he said, “the fact that it is so uncommon makes it easier for [proponents] to spin these wild stories without being refuted.”
During testimony on a conversion-therapy bill last year in New Hampshire, Sprigg said a legislator asked every witness on both sides of the issue if he or she knew of a therapist in the state who conducts such therapy.
“There was not one witness who could name one person in the state who does this therapy,” Sprigg said, “yet they were spending hours and hours considering a bill to outlaw something that, as far as we could tell, didn’t exist in New Hampshire.”
Nonetheless, the bill passed the New Hampshire House 179-171 and is now in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Opponents claim it also would prohibit talk therapy (also known as psychotherapy) aimed at reducing or eliminating same-sex attraction and/or gender dysphoria, even if that was the client’s goal.
“You’re saying to that client, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t help you here,’” said Shannon McGinley, executive director of Cornerstone Action (New Hampshire), which opposed the bill. “You’re not allowed to help them achieve their therapeutic goals. Further, on the side of the counselor, you’re muzzling them, taking options off the table.”
Added Sprigg, “These laws are not viewpoint-neutral because if someone says, ‘I want help to be more comfortable with being gay,’ then they can get that, but if they want help with being more comfortable being straight, they can’t get that. And with gender identity, if they say they want to change and be the opposite sex, it’s legal to help them with that. But if they want to be comfortable with their birth sex, it’s illegal to offer that kind of help.”
Now, some in California, where the first conversion-therapy ban was passed in 2012, have proposed even more radical legislation that would prohibit any counselor, including a religious one, from accepting money for services to help any patient or client, adult or minor, to change any aspect of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Conversion-therapy bans have been bolstered by well-organized and well-funded efforts by such groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Besides their legislative efforts, all three groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in 2016, accusing the nonprofit group People Can Change, now known as Brothers Road, of consumer fraud by offering, marketing, selling and performing “conversion-therapy” services.
The National Task Force for Therapy Equality, a coalition of psychiatrists, physicians, public policy groups and clients with same-sex attraction and gender-identity conflicts, responded with its own consumer-fraud complaint last year, asking the FTC “to investigate and stop the libelous, slanderous, deceptive and misleading actions” of the three groups.
The task force said the groups have been engaging in a fraudulent campaign aimed at deceiving lawmakers to enact laws banning psychotherapy for clients, mainly minors, who experience same-sex attractions and gender-identity conflicts.
Additionally, proponents of conversion-therapy bans have had their cause promoted in films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which recently won the Sundance Film Festival’s highest prize for its portrayal of teens trying to “pray away the gay,” and the upcoming Boy Erased, in which the son of a Baptist minister is forced to take part in a gay-conversion program.
Even the documentary The Sunday Sessions, about the therapy received by Nathan, a young man who remained true to his Catholic faith while struggling with his sexual identity, is being presented as a film about the harms of conversion therapy.
Christopher Doyle, the therapist in the film and executive director of the Institute for Healthy Families, said he had agreed to work with what he thought was a neutral film producer on the project. However, Doyle, who also serves as coordinator of the National Task Force for Therapy Equality, said he later learned that the filmmaker had approached the project with preconceived notions about the therapy he provided and so concluded that the emotional and relational healing the client received was “torture.”
“It seems that for those who do not understand the importance of faith for individuals like Nathan, therapy to work through sexual-identity issues is completely misunderstood,” Doyle said. “For Nathan, the therapy he received was lifesaving and integral to help him stay true to his personal and faith values while working through a number of painful traumas from his childhood.”
Sprigg said he thinks the ultimate purpose of activists who are pushing conversion-therapy bans is to essentially prohibit any conduct based on the belief that there is anything undesirable about homosexuality, even if a client seeking therapy is acting on his or her own desire to abstain from same-sex attraction or homosexual conduct.
“I can’t think of another area where such a totalitarian approach has been taken. … As far as I know, there is no other subject matter in which there is an effort to outlaw a particular client-chosen goal because it is the goal alone that makes the activity illegal under these laws. It’s not the type of therapy, the type of procedure or methodology — it is the goal of changing one’s sexual orientation which is being outlawed.”
Indeed, advocates of conversion-therapy ban legislation believe it is both harmful and impossible to attempt to alter a person’s same-sex attraction through therapy. “Our position is that if someone is lesbian or gay, they should be honored and celebrated for who they are and supported as such,” said Amanda McLain Snipes, director of advocacy programs for the Equality Federation, which serves as a partner to state-based “LGBTQ” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) groups.
Asked whether someone who wanted such help should be prevented from receiving it, McLain Snipes said, “There is no medical indication that that’s helpful, and, actually, it’s harmful because it is a significant threat to a person’s mental health. The bottom line for us is efforts to change somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity are unjustifiable practices. We’re not alone in that.” Such efforts, she said, are “the bedrock of animus toward the LGBT community in this country.”
Furthermore, Carolyn Reyes, youth policy counsel and #BornPerfect campaign coordinator for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), said every major health organization has denounced as unethical attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity because such therapy doesn’t work and it puts patients at risk of such harms as depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Among the groups the NCLR cites as condemning conversion therapy are the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.
Drawing a Distinction
However, David Pickup, a psychotherapist trained in what is known as reparative therapy, draws a distinction between the kind of methods that have inspired conversion-therapy bans and authentic therapy that he said can help those seeking help with same-sex attraction or gender confusion.
Methods like electroshock therapy and aversion therapy are questionable and clearly inhuman, he said, but, despite claims to the contrary, are not being used today.
The therapy he practices seeks to eliminate shame for having homosexual feelings, but also attempts to uncover the trauma at the root of those feelings. Pickup said for men and boys such traumas typically include severe lack of male affirmation, love, affection and approval by the male role models in a boy’s life during the younger years of child development.
According to Pickup’s website, clients who receive such therapy can experience various levels of reduction in homosexual feelings. As a result, some develop strong, nonsexual relationships with other men, while others become attracted to women.
Pickup received and was trained in reparative therapy at a clinic in California started by the late Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, co-founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Pickup formerly practiced in California, but he said that under that state’s ban, no one can provide reparative therapy to a minor.
Activists who claim they want to protect children by enacting such bans, he said, are hurting those who experience same-sex attraction by telling them they have no choice but to function as homosexuals. “They’re communicating that to adults as well, and that is doing a lot of harm.”
Connecticut’s Wide Net
Another concern about such laws is that they may affect more than just licensed therapists or counselors.
For example, a conversion-therapy ban passed in Connecticut covers any “health care provider,” which the law says could include occupational therapists, alcohol and drug counselors, registered nurses, nurse’s aides, pharmacists, genetic counselors, behavior analysts and hypnotists, in addition to psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers and professional counselors.
It also specifies any person engaged in trade or commerce, creating an additional offense under laws governing deceptive trade. Furthermore, the law prohibits expenditure of public funds for any purpose related to conversion therapy.
Colorado Springs, Colorado, attorney Martin Nussbaum called the Connecticut law one of the most radical of its kind in the country. It is written so broadly, he said, that it could technically find in violation a bookstore selling a book like the Bible because it talks about living in alignment with one’s biology or a church that charges for a Sunday-school text containing traditional teachings about sexuality.
Nussbaum said, “The bill raises the question: Can one preach and teach chastity in Connecticut? Can one publish or sell books that do so?”
He added, “This bill in many regards was trying to fix a symbolic problem, but is having serious adverse effects on those who become regulated by it.” And, he said, the most serious of these effects may not come so much from direct enforcement of the law as from the chilling effect such laws will have on American society.
“These laws and their counterparts cumulatively have a profound teaching effect and establish an orthodoxy that is intolerant of traditional religious views and traditional mental-health views. It’s absolutely intolerant. And people can lose their license, which is their livelihood, for violating this. It’s the PC police writ large.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.