September 1, 2012
The state Legislature wrapped up its lawmaking session in Sacramento this week, sending Gov. Jerry Brown dozens of bills, regulating hunters, farmers, used-car dealers.
But one bill in particular piqued my interest. It would limit the kind of therapy that counselors can offer to gay children.
And it would make California — depending on your perspective — either a national leader in protecting gay and lesbian kids, or a symbol of nitpicky “nanny state” intrusion.
If it becomes law, California will be the only state in the nation that forbids mental health professionals from trying to convert young patients from gay or lesbian to straight.
The bill, written by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), had rough sledding early on. It was opposed by a coalition of groups representing psychiatrists, psychologists, family therapists and counselors, who worried that its language and sanctions would “inhibit and prevent attempts by therapists to legitimately explore sexual identity and gender concerns.”
But months of negotiations eased some of its restrictions and referred sanctions to state licensing boards. Now mental health professionals are supportive.
“It’s very hard to take psychological concepts and turn them into a piece of legislation,” said Jo Linder-Crow, executive director of the California Psychological Assn.
“But what this bill is saying is that you can’t, if you are a mental health professional, say to a parent, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help make your kid straight.'”
Not even if the parent asks you to. Or if a therapist’s own bias or agenda suggests that gay-to-straight might work.
The notion that homosexuality is a disease that needs curing was renounced by the mental health mainstream half a century ago. And treatment aimed at converting gays has been discredited by virtually every professional counseling group.
Even the World Health Organization has pronounced conversion therapy “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”
So why does the Legislature need to get involved, to put this “quackery” off-limits?
Because parents need to recognize, Lieu said, that efforts to change a child’s sexual orientation are akin to “psychological abuse.”
Raising the profile of the practice is a way to knock it down. “This conversation has already influenced the discussion around the country,” he said.
Since the bill was introduced last spring, the psychiatrist whose research gave the conversion process credence has admitted his research was flawed, and the head of Exodus International, a Christian “reparative therapy” group, pronounced the concept a failure, even harmful.
It’s part of a bigger movement, a cultural shift that encourages acceptance and respect for children’s emerging, and sometimes unconventional, gender identity.
It’s a subject that can make well-meaning parents clumsily uncomfortable. Counseling can help. But the challenge, said Linder-Crow, “is how do we allow … legitimate exploration and prevent something that has long-term damaging effects.”