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Should gay conversion therapy be illegal? California asks.

Posted by Jim Lopata  August 22, 2012 03:42 PM

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Californians are clashing over whether or not to ban gay conversion therapies for minors. A bill is moving forward in the state’s legislature that would make it a crime for medical professionals to offer services to change a person’s homosexual orientation to a heterosexual one.

Many arguments line up in the usual for-and-against manner, but some points being expressed are more equivocal.


In the ‘ban’ camp are mostly Democrats who support the bill. These proponents note that reparative therapies have proven ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. They include the bill’s sponsor, Calif. state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and James Guay, a San Francisco-based therapist who testified in favor of the legislation by explaining how the "ex-gay" therapy he had as a child led to a mental breakdown, according to a HuffPost Gay Voices article that can be read here.


In the ‘don't ban’ category are many Republicans who oppose the legislation primarily on the grounds that it deprives mothers and fathers of their parental rights. "The default of this Legislature is to assume authority over parents by getting invested in issues of medicine, which is something it is not qualified to do, especially regarding matters of medical decisions made between parents and children," said Orange County Assemblyman Donald Wagner, (R-Irvine) in an article in the Orange County Register, which can be accessed here.


Then there are some in the ‘not-totally-for-or-against’ bloc who have expressed more nuanced concerns. Many of them find common ground with Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach). By most accounts Lowenthal is a friend to the LGBT rights movement. He voted in favor of a bill that required gay history be included in the state’s education curriculum, and he has been a supporter of marriage equality. But Lowenthal has some reservations about the conversion therapy legislation. He told the Los Angeles Times (in an article that can be read here) that he has heard concerns from some professionals that the measure may be “overly broad and might prohibit their ability to engage in discussions about sexuality.”

Another friendly skeptic is Slate writer William Saletan who, in his article “Fifty Shades of Gay,” (which can be accessed here), makes the argument that “Homosexuality is fundamentally personal, not political,” and that “[m]orally and therapeutically, it’s better to treat people as individuals.”

Many gay rights advocates who are uncomfortable with the California gay conversion ban seem to believe that the policing of therapy should be left to the medical community. Indeed the American Psychological Association has already forcefully spoken out on the issue, releasing a special statement in 1997 on the topic:

The Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) has passed a resolution affirming four basic principles with regard to treatments to alter sexual orientation, so-called conversion or reparative therapies.

These principles are:

• Homosexuality is not a mental disorder and the APA opposes all portrayals of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as mentally ill and in need of treatment due to their sexual orientation;

• Psychologists do not knowingly participate in or condone discriminatory practices with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients;

• Psychologists respect the rights of individuals, including lesbian, gay and bisexual clients to privacy, confidentiality, self-determination and autonomy;

• Psychologists obtain appropriate informed consent to therapy in their work with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients.

The resolution further states that the APA "urges all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientation."

Supporters of the resolution, which passed the APA Council overwhelmingly by a voice vote, believed that it was critical for the Association to make such a statement due to the questions of the ethics, efficacy and benefits of conversion therapy which are now being debated within the profession and within society as a whole.

But many Californians don’t feel that APA goes far enough in enforcing this resolution. And, in fact, Rhea Farberman, a spokesperson for the APA, said that the association “does not approve or ban" therapies, according to an article in the Orange County Register. The article further noted that “The association has said that sexual re-orientation efforts are not effective, but hasn't designated such therapy as an ethical violation. Farberman said such decisions are up to individual states.”


The California conversion controversy resonates in an anecdote from Sigmund Freud’s career. In 1935, an American mother wrote to the famous doctor asking if he could help her with her son’s homosexual behavior. He wrote back to her:

“By asking if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. ... If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains homosexual or gets changed. If you make up your mind he should have analysis with me [sic]. I don’t expect you will.” [see footnote below]

A careful reading of Freud’s works demonstrates that, despite the preponderance of citations of Freud's writings on both sides of the debate, Freud held little expectation that a person’s sexual orientation could be changed through therapy. What he did expect was that every possible topic be left on the table during analysis with an eye toward helping a patient achieve some sense of “peace of mind.”

Given Freud’s views, Calif. state Sen. Lowenthal’s concerns — that the California ban may be “overly broad and might prohibit [therapists'] ability to engage in discussions about sexuality” — seem well placed, though not a bill killer. It's all in the wording.


The bill that is currently up for consideration states its intent clearly on the first page,:

This bill would prohibit a mental health provider, as defined, from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts, as defined, with a patient under 18 years of age.

The entire bill can be accessed in PDF form here.

This bill is on its way to a full vote by the California Legislature and could be headed to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk soon. Brown has not said whether or not he supports the measure.

If you were Governor Brown, would you sign the bill into law?

Chances are that if the ban becomes effective in California, similar measures will be discussed in New England.

Where do you stand? Have you been converted to one point of view or another?

Footnote: From "Freud, Male Homosexuality, and the Americans," by Henry Abelove in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michčle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. 1993). Routledge. New York. pp. 381-382.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!

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