Gay Conversion Therapy: Why States Should Follow California and Ban Harmful Anti-LGBT Treatment

For four months, landmark social justice legislation has been unable to take effect thanks to the power of a homophobic lobby.

In October of 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law banning gay “conversion” therapy for minors, a bill set to take effect in January of this year. According to Wayne Besen, executive director of the Vermont-based queer activist group Truth Wins Out, the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts are now considering similar bans.

However, a suit brought against the ban by a group of so-called conversion “therapists” and their former clients — men claiming to have been “cured” of their homosexuality — has delayed the law’s implementation and detracted from a critical national dialogue about the risks of conversion therapy. Most ironically, the plaintiffs claim a violation of free speech, despite the fact that conversion therapy itself labels the free expression of gender identity and sexual orientation a disease.

A San Francisco federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday on the dispute, but has yet to reach a decision on the law’s legitimacy. Whatever that decision may be, it cannot change the fact that conversion therapy is quite simply bad science.

Conversion therapy has been condemned as illegitimate by the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other major medical authorities. As early as 1997, the APA passed a resolution discrediting the practice and declaring that homosexuality is not a mental disorder, nor does it require any form of treatment whatsoever. Several of these authorities have also recognized that conversion therapy is inherently harmful to those whom it attempts to treat.

Indeed, conversion therapy is based on a presumption that is fundamentally discriminatory and destructive — the idea that behavior contrary to a socially prescribed gender identity or sexual norm constitutes a mental problem and, according to most advocates of the practice, a grievous moral transgression. Such a presumption reinforces the culture of intolerance and hate toward LGBTQ individuals, which most frequently manifests itself among youth in the form of bullying and hate crimes and often results in suicidal depression.

That parents should enjoy the right, as a function of free speech, to have medical professionals tell their children that their very identity is unwelcome, inappropriate and even evil is a disturbing injustice and flies in the face of medical standards of ethics. Mental health practitioners are supposed to help people develop a healthy perception and representation of themselves in their everyday lives, not coerce them into despising themselves.

Sure, people can say whatever they want about alternative forms of sexuality — for better or for worse. But the protection of free speech doesn’t extend to the endorsement of whatever anyone says as medical fact. Therapy isn’t just a dialogue; it’s a medical practice. The actions of a therapist do not constitute mere speech; they constitute treatment. And medical treatment that is unfounded in science and that poses a threat to a patient’s physical, mental or emotional well-being without due cause or reward is not medical treatment at all. It’s unethical and illegal.

Unfortunately, America’s tacit acceptance of conversion therapy has made it necessary for California to pass a redundant law, to make what is already legally classifiable as medical malpractice illegal once more.

But if legislative redundancy is what it takes for the well-being of youth to be respected in this country, then so be it. Any state that is truly invested in the health of its citizens should pass laws to prevent this kind of abuse. Conversion therapy has been linked to low self-esteem, identity crisis, discouragement and suicide. The only significant health risk of allowing gay kids to just be gay is more harassment from the same groups who invented conversion therapy in the first place.

The answer seems obvious. Conversion therapy is harmful and parents shouldn’t be allowed to force harmful things on their kids. If physicians started prescribing cigarettes as an anxiety reducer for kids with ADHD, we’d all flip our lids. Why is conversion therapy any different?

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Francesca Bessey

Canadian-born writer/student/philosopher/activist studying international relations and narrative at the University of Southern California. Holocaust researcher with the USC Shoah Foundation and leader and founder of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative at USC. Feminist without apologies. Enthusiast for the outdoors, travel, and life.

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