SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER FILES SUIT ON BEHALF OF FOUR GAY MEN
Last Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed suit on behalf of four young gay men against a Jersey City, NJ based organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing (JONAH), a group that provides conversion therapy to gay men looking to become straight. At a press conference following the unprecedented filing of such a suit, two of the plaintiffs Michael Ferguson, a 30-year-old Mormon from Salt Lake City, and Chaim Levin, a 25-year-old Brooklyn native who grew up in a Jewish Orthodox home, provided heart-wrenching statements about the torment and abuse they endured at the hands of these so-called therapists and life coaches. The story has received international attention, and I had the honor of providing a statement on behalf of these young men, giving voice to the consensus among the clinical community that conversion therapy is harmful and dangerous, and providers of such ineffective and harmful “treatment” need to be held accountable. Hopefully this lawsuit will be a step in shutting down the conversion therapy industry as a whole. My statement to the press was as follows:
Good morning. My name is Laura Booker and I am a licensed clinical social worker with over fifteen years of clinical experience. I have worked with clients who underwent conversion therapy and have seen its devastating effects first-hand, particularly on those who experience it at a young age. I am here to represent the accepted medical consensus that conversion therapy is not in the best interests of patients.
Every major mental health association in this country, (including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and National Association of Social Workers) views homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality. Because homosexuality is no longer viewed as a pathology or mental disorder, there is no need for a cure, any more than a perfectly good working leg needs surgery. Each of the associations I just mentioned has put out policy statements dissuading professionals and consumers from pursuing any treatment purported to change sexual orientation. Unfortunately, some practitioners, licensed and unlicensed, continue to promise sexual orientation change to vulnerable clients and their families.
Empirical research has failed to show that conversion therapy is effective. A 2009 APA Task Force reviewed all the relevant literature on sexual orientation change and found all of the empirical studies since the early 80s to have serious methodological flaws. Any supportive findings of lasting change have generally been dismissed by the academic community as poor and misleading research.
Not only is conversion therapy ineffective, but also has the potential to cause serious and life-threatening harm to those who are exposed to it. It is my clinical experience that people who have undergone conversion therapy are much more likely to suffer from depression, including suicidality, chronic anxiety, sexual dysfunction (inhibited sexual response), and shame. These clients, if they are lucky enough to realize the harm, must then spend countless hours in affirmative therapy in order to accept their identity and cope with the trauma they experienced in trying to change their sexual orientation.
Because conversion therapy is in large part based on the premise that homosexuality is a result of parental failure, it can cause tremendous guilt and shame for parents who feel they are to blame for something that is perfectly natural. It can cause significant discord in parent-child relationships that were otherwise close. For a small minority who self-report a short-term decrease in same-sex attraction, this repression of one’s sexuality results in disconnection, shame and lack of authentic, gratifying relationships with others.
Conversion therapists tell clients “If you just try hard enough, you can change.” Consequently those who “fail” to change their basic sexual identity may experience self-loathing, low self-esteem and a deep sense of failure to themselves, their families and communities. The techniques used by conversion therapists range from absurd to extremely abusive and dangerous. These counselors abuse their positions of authority to push clients to re-enact early life traumas, thereby re-traumatizing them. This is simply against the ethical rules of any psychological profession. Conversion therapy is an assault on the core nature of oneself, which can lead complete sense of alienation and erosion of the psyche. No responsible therapist would treat a patient in this manner.
STOP HARMING OUR KIDS RESOLUTION
Efforts to hold conversion therapists accountable gained momentum throughout the week. On Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill Rep. Jackie Speier (CA-D), introduced a resolution called Stop Harming our Kids with the intent also to hold conversion therapists accountable for ineffective and harmful practices with minors. Representatives for Southern Poverty Law Center, including myself, along with two young men who had been subject to years of conversion therapy spoke in support of the resolution. Jerry Spencer, a 23 year old gay man from Texas, spoke of four years of conversion therapy and the heartbreak he experienced as a fifteen year old after not being allowed to attend the funeral of his first boyfriend who died of cancer. Speier appeared very passionate about the issue and the responsibility of the states to protect minors from harm. She called to task by name several providers, including Michelle Bachmann’s husband, who have profited through these snake oil enterprises, some of whom unbelievably even receive reimbursement from Medicaid or Tricaid.
WHAT THE CALIFORNIA LAW MEANS AND DOESN’T MEAN
Speir’s resolution follows Governor Jerry Brown’s signing into law SB 1172 this last September. The law prohibits licensed mental health practitioners in California from providing conversion therapy to minors. The language of the law strikes a fine balance, recognizing that the state has a responsibility to protect minors from harm, in the same way that minors are not allowed to drink or smoke while not eroding their autonomy in making decisions about things such as reproductive rights without parental consent. The distinction being that conversion therapy is harmful so the state needs to intervene where access to birth control and abortion are not.
Because the law impacts only minors, adults can still pursue conversion therapy which seems to preserve the notion of self-determination. Adults do all kinds of things that may be perceived as harmful so the state stops short of banning the practice all together. The California law falls short of regulating non-licensed people who provide conversion therapy. Any non-licensed person, including those within religious institutions, can still hang up a shingle and claim to be able to help someone change his or her sexual orientation. However, the brilliance of the SPLC strategy to sue under the consumer fraud statutes is that the suit will set the first precedent that advertising that sexual orientation is changeable is an actionable offense, regardless of one’s licensure status.
The conservative Pacific Justice issue has filed suit in federal court aiming to block SB 1172 claiming that the bill violates free speech rights of therapists and privacy rights of patients.