A legal fight is brewing in the U.S. over whether underage minors should have the “right” to receive gay-conversion treatment to help them “become” heterosexual, or whether such practices should be banned for their traumatizing effects.
The battle began when California became the first U.S. state to ban sexual conversion therapy on minors. In September, 2012, California passed Senate Bill 1172, making it illegal for mental health professionals to use gay-conversion therapy to “reverse” same-sex attraction in young men and women, calling it junk-science that belonged in the “dustbin of quackery.” “This bill bans non-scientific 'therapies' that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” Governor Jerry Brown tweeted at the time. "These practices have no basis in science or medicine." Supporters similarly asserted that the law would help save lives and prevent gay minors from feeling depression, self-hatred, and anxiety over their sexual inclinations. A variety of medical associations, including the California Psychological Association, backed the bill, citing a 2009 American Psychology Association report which reported the traumatizing psychological effects sexual conversation therapy had on its subjects.
In the couple of months that have passed following passage of the law, the issue of sexual conversion therapy has been thrust into the national spotlight, and numerous citizens, outreach groups, and advocacy agencies have spoken out about the treatment. In the first of its kind, New Jersey-based non-profit legal services provider Southern Poverty Law Center filed a consumer fraud and false advertising lawsuit on behalf of four gay young men against a “sexual conversion” organization, JONAH, which claimed to eliminate homosexual desires through a “scientifically-proven” process.
Since then, however, there has been a strong effort made by various groups and individuals to protect” the rights of young adults feeling unwanted same-sex attraction. These advocacy groups, some of which appear to be religious and political organizations, argue that gays have a “legal right” to seek conversion therapy, and that prohibition of these therapies deprives them of their First Amendment and privacy rights. Religious legal rights group Pacific Justice Institute has gone so far as to file a suit against the state of California, seeking a permanent injunction blocking the ban from taking effect. According to the lawsuit, the prohibition “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 lawsuit names as defendants Governor Brown and dozens of other state officials. Another lawsuit has been brought to block the California prohibition by Liberty Counsel, which is representing the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality and the American Association for Christian Counselors, as well as several parents and teens who purportedly want to continue sexual-orientation change therapy.
Other U.S. states, however, are following California in introducing similar bills banning sexual conversion therapy. A similar law is being introduced in the New Jersey by Assemblyman Timothy Eustace. “I see it as a form of child abuse,” Eustace said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Being gay “is not an illness, so what are they fixing?” New Jersey’s proposed legislation, modeled after California's law, would prohibit mental health professionals from engaging in “sexual orientation change efforts” with a minor. Further, at least one congressional representative, Jackie Speier (D-Ca.) plans to propose new federal law to ban the use of sexual orientation conversion therapy on minors nationwide, and Democratic Senators Raymond Lesniak and Stephen Sweeney say they intend to introduce an accompanying bill in the Senate. These types of prohibitions could take place either directly by banning the practice altogether, or indirectly by making it illegal for Medicare, Medicaid, or other public benefit funds from being used to pay for such therapies.
The issue of sexual orientation conversion therapy, though it may ultimately play out in a legal or political arenas among lawmakers, is an issue of deep sensitivity for its victims. One 23-year old victim said he was forced by his conservative religious parents to undergo conversation therapy for six years, from age 14 to 20. In another example, Ryan Kendall, who testified before the California Assembly’s Business, Professions, and Consumer Protection Committee, told how he was driven to the brink of suicide after running away from home at the age of 16 due to forced conversion therapy. In an especially disturbing case, young adult Samuel Briton recounted the stories of the electrocutions, physical abuse, needle-piercings, and death threats he was exposed to from his father at just 12 years of age.
It is unknown how the legal fight will end, whether in California or other states. For the two lawsuits brought to block California’s prohibition from taking effect, the hearing will take place in Sacramento federal court on November 30, 2012. At that time, the federal court will hear the arguments raised by California state government officials in support of the prohibition as well as the countervailing viewpoints raised by the interest groups, and decide whether to issue a temporary injunction blocking the prohibition.
Rabeh M. A. Soofi is a civil rights attorney, legal commentator, and blogger reporting on issues important to Los Angeles and Americans nationwide.