Gay-Straight Conversion Therapy Ban

02Sep12

The California legislature recently voted to limit the practice of gay-straight conversion therapy in that state. From the Wall Street Journal article:

California’s state legislature on Thursday passed the nation’s first law banning professional psychological therapy aimed at turning gay and lesbian youth straight… The legislation, which will next go to Gov. Jerry Brown for review, prevents licensed psychologists and therapists from seeking to change the sexual orientation of children under 18.

This drills down to the very core of the debate over gay rights in the United States.  This is what it’s really all about.  This is where rubber meets road, and sh!t meets fan.

Religious conservatives don’t want their kids to be gay.

If they find out — or even suspect — they have a gay child, they will do just about anything to “repair” him or her, or convince themselves that the child is not actually gay at all.  In the end, they may simply write off the child as a failure and remove the “abomination” from their midst.

It’s the youth who really suffer, of course.  LGBT teens are much more likely to experience depression, become homeless,  and commit suicide.  Gay conversion therapy itself isn’t to blame for all this, of course, but neither is a youth’s sexuality.  It’s mostly due to the pressure to be straight, to be something one can never be.

One potent external factor:  Christian fundamentalists in the United States embrace a belief in Hell.  They believe that any deviation from the “straight and narrow” path will doom a person to eternal damnation and torture.  Homosexual activity is a particularly vile sin to them, and they are generally repulsed by any kind of sex act that does not involve a penis in a vagina.  They do not want their kids to go to Hell, so they do not want their kids to be gay.

This is the taproot of the fierce opposition to gay rights in the U.S.  If gay sexuality, relationships, and families are normalized, fundamentalists fear that their own children will “choose” the gay “lifestyle.”  Then, not only may the parents see their prospects for grandchildren diminished, but their children will no longer be Christians and will go to Hell.

What would any parent do to save their child?  And if eternity is at stake, how much does the child’s present, temporary suffering even matter?  From this angle, it’s easy to understand why some parents are so strident against gay marriage, appeals for tolerance in schools, and positive depictions of LGBT people in media.  They often believe the assertions that gay adults are out to “recruit” youngsters into homosexuality.  They desperately don’t want their children to be gay, and they don’t want their children to suffer because they are gay.

At this time, though, our best scientific evidence indicates that LGBT people are born that way.  We don’t know what causes homosexuality, bisexuality, or gender dysphoria, but genetics and/or conditions in utero may play a role.  The American Psychological Association’s position is that sexual orientation is not a mental illness and there is no evidence it can be changed.  The organization has this to say about the therapy targeted by the California legislation:

All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. This appears to be especially likely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who grow up in more conservative religious settings.*

The bill only constrains licensed therapists — not religious counselors or other “life coaches.”  Given the APA statement, I’m surprised that any professional psychologists at all use conversion therapy, with adults or minors.  I’m left to wonder is this move is largely symbolic, but the topic is a bit difficult to research since so many of the web pages discussing it have clear biases.

So, in effect, California parents will still be able to force their children into counseling or programs intended to change their sexual orientation.  From the typical fundamentalist Christian perspective, this is how it should be.  Their children’s very souls are at stake, and the government has no business telling them how to raise their kids or undermining their parental authority.  Any civil interference violates their right to the free exercise of their religion.

But don’t youth have rights, too?  Shouldn’t teens have a say in the medical care they receive?  This conflict has played out before in highly publicized life-or-death cases.  Should a parent be allowed to deny life-saving treatment to a child, even if the child wants it, because of the parent’s religious beliefs?  On the flip side, when can a minor decline medical treatment over parents’ objections, be the motivation religious or otherwise?  At what point, if any, does society’s interest in the child’s life tip the scale one way or another?

These are not easy questions, and the legal answers may never be clear.  Obviously, though, it’s not as if a switch flips when a person turns 18.  Becoming an adult and developing the capacity to make adult decisions is a gradual process that varies from one individual to the next.  I do not think parents should have the same power of a normal 17-year-old than they would over an infant.  When honest scientific inquiry has shown us that conversion therapy can do no good, and may even harm a person’s well-being, I think government has rightful cause to step in and protect minors from it.

The U.S. is not a theocracy.  It cannot justify policy or deny people protections based on the assumption that Hell exists.  To do so would only stoke the fires of the hell that many young LGBT people already live.

* Retrieved on 9/2/2012.

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