The California state Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would prohibit “ex-gay” therapy for people under 18. If passed by the Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, California will become the first state to protect LGBT people from potential harm caused by the therapy promoted by anti-LGBT activists.
Ex-gay therapy, also known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, purports to help turn LGBT people straight. The bill’s primary sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu, said he is seeking the ban because he believes it is harmful and has led some to commit suicide. “The entire medical community is opposed to these phony therapies,” he said in a statement just after the bill passed. “Everyone agrees that this quackery needs to stop.”
The bill establishes that any mental health practitioner consulted to eliminate emotional and sexual feelings or desires for people of the same sex must first obtain informed consent from the patient prior. A minor would not be able to provide consent for ex-gay therapy, regardless of the desires of the minor’s parents. Under the bill, “informed consent” consists of a number of disclosures provided to the patient by the mental health practitioner to make the patient more aware of benefits, harms and alternatives to sexual orientation therapy.
Ex-gay therapy has been widely discredited by the scientific community. In 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) stated, “There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” In a 2009 resolution and accompanying report, the APA issued its most comprehensive repudiation to date of reparative therapy, saying that no solid evidence exists to support the idea that sexual orientation can change and that some research suggested that efforts to produce that change could be harmful.
In spite of that, and in spite of an American public that has grown increasingly supportive of LGBT people, a small group of therapists, often allied with conservative religious groups or individuals, continues to tout ex-gay therapy as a way to “free” oneself from “homosexual urges.” The preeminent group in support of reparative therapy is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which claims that no one is born gay and that homosexual orientation can be changed. At the heart of that argument lies the belief that homosexuality is a “deviation” from normal sexual development and can thus be treated as a mental disorder. Many groups that oppose LGBT rights use these arguments to depict LGBT people as mentally ill and to discredit them and their supporters.
Those views are on increasingly shaky ground, more so in the wake of the repudiation of a 2001 study that has long been used by ex-gay therapy proponents and anti-gay groups as “proof” that sexual orientation can change. Dr. Robert Spitzer, the study’s author, had claimed that some “highly motivated” individuals could change their sexual orientation. He recently repudiated his own study and apologized to the LGBT community. The study had long been criticized for suspect methodology and design. Spitzer used no control group and relied on the self-reports of people referred to him by Joseph Nicolosi, a therapist affiliated with NARTH.
“I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from this study,” Spitzer said in an exclusive interview released Wednesday by Truth Wins Out, a group that tracks anti-gay activity and the ex-gay therapy industry. “The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change.”
Spitzer added, “If people can recognize that being a homosexual is something that cannot be changed and that efforts to change are going to be disappointing and can be harmful, if that can be more widely known that would be very good.”
He also expressed disappointment that groups like Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) and Focus on the Family have refused to stop showing a video that features Spitzer discussing his study long before he repudiated it. In the interview with Truth Wins Out, he also calls on NARTH and the American College of Pediatricians (a small, anti-gay group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics) and others to stop using the video, but didn’t seem to believe they would. “The people who are pushing the ‘ex-gay’ idea are so full of hatred for homosexuality,” he said, “that I don’t think they can respond in an ethical way.”