by: Khai Devon
I am lucky enough that I have never been subjected to intensive ex-gay therapy. I did, however, grow up in a community that believed being gay was a choice, and if you prayed hard enough God would take away these “immoral thoughts and feelings.” Oh, I prayed. I screamed, I cried, I did everything I could think of to take away these “immoral thoughts and feelings,” begging for years that the God I so fervently believed in would make me straight, would make me attracted to the opposite sex, would make me normal—I just wanted to be “like everybody else,” so God would love me again.
The amount of self-loathing I felt has been chronicled elsewhere, but suffice it to say—even now, as an out and proud queer, I fight feeling “wrong” and “bad” because of who I am attracted to. I still fight for recognition of my inherent worth—from myself as much as from anyone else. And that is only because my culture and my community taught me to hate gayness—no one knew when I was young enough for them to decide to do anything about it. For years, I did everything I could to act the part I was supposed to act, having been assigned a female sex at birth. All I ended up with was a broken heart, a broken spirit, and a bevy of psychological issues I’m still working out. And I am still attracted to other people with female bodies.
Conversion therapy, a set of psychological techniques aiming at redetermining sexual orientation, ignores social, psychological, and biological research. It does not work, and often (usually) causes more harm than it purports to cure. It engenders and is engendered by a society which still can’t accept that the sex lives of consenting adults are nobody else’s business. It is dripping with the imposition of cosmological beliefs, outdated social mores, and harmful messages. It is often paid for by well-meaning, if misguided, parents of gay youth who already are fighting against a society telling them they’re second-class citizens at best.
Furthermore, several people who were involved in conversion therapy groups have now come out, again, stating that “ex-gay” movements cause more harm than good and that their sexual orientation never “changed.” People are who they are. Not only is there all this anecdotal evidence—and trust me, the links up there are but a random selection of the many, many, many stories available—but every major medical and psychological association and ethics board has come out with a statement to the effect that trying to cure homosexuality is unethical at best. The statistics are sobering and scary.
And yet, when California passed a law that banned conversion therapy for minors, there was an uproar. The law is still being debated in California courts, with proponents of the ban citing much the same things as my argument up to this point, and opponents of the ban citing, mostly, the First Amendment. A recent Salon.com article sums up the argument best,
“A federal judge temporarily halted a California law that banned therapists from using gay conversion therapy on minors, ruling that the law could possibly violate the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge William Shubb placed a temporary injunction on a law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed earlier this year that banned the use of “conversion” therapy on those under 18, known as “sexual orientation change efforts,” which claim to be able to turn a gay person straight.”
Make no mistake—I would die to protect freedom of speech. I honestly and passionately believe in the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to protest, the right to speak openly and honestly, and the right to express oneself. I wholeheartedly believe in the rights guaranteed, in part, by the First Amendment. However, there’s a difference between freedom of expression and belief, and practicing a form of therapy which violates the Hippocratic oath.
The “First Amendment Rights” argument is complete and utter bull-honkey on two levels. First of all, there is massive precedent for the curtailing of freedom of speech in a situation in which that speech is known to cause harm. The classic example is that it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre, because of the very real risk to life and limb that creates. Hate speech bans on campuses are another example. In some cases, the social contract requires a curtailing of individual freedoms to provide for the maximum amount of societal freedom.
The second reason that using the First Amendment to justify the harming of LGBT youth through conversion therapy is completely and utterly ridiculous is the simple matter of ethics. Conversion therapy is not the first, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, form of therapy found to be unethical based on the significant risks to the client involved. At one point, there was a popular therapy known as “re-birthing,” which required smothering a recalcitrant child in a blanket and forcing them to struggle their way out—if they were lucky enough to survive. That therapy was banned in Colorado in 2001 after a girl was smothered in a blanket until she literally died, in an effort to change her behavior and feelings. North Carolina also has a ban on rebirthing therapy. And this is only one example. When it comes to “do no harm,” sometimes there needs to be guidelines on what is harmful and what is therapeutic process.
The group which decides the ethical guidelines and boundaries for psychological workers is the American Psychological Association. In their position statement on conversion therapy, the APA states,
As a general principle, a therapist should not determine the goal of treatment either coercively or through subtle influence. Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or “repair” homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable. Furthermore, anecdotal reports of “cures” are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm. In the last four decades, “reparative” therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, APA recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm. (emphasis mine)
There are many therapeutic processes that work well for helping people become healthy, happy, stable individuals capable of being productive members of society—protecting one which is more harmful than it is good, and which cannot and will not be tested and measured against veritable scientific evidence by perverting the intent of the law meant to give us greater rather than less freedom is wrong.