The Debate on Therapies to ‘Cure’ Gays Gains Momentum in the States

Edited by Anita Dixon

New Jersey becomes the second state, after California, to ban such treatments in minors. Its defenders appeal for freedom of speech.

A California appeals court ruled this past Thursday that the law passed by this state in September 2012, banning therapies to cure homosexuality in minors, is constitutional. This state was the pioneer in signing legislation of this kind in the United States. A week ago, New Jersey became the second state to veto this type of therapy under the same circumstances. The passage of both regulations shows the increased unrest in American society regarding these kinds of practices, which are questioned by the American Psychology Association (APA), and it has reopened the debate between the predominant advocates of homosexual rights, who consider these treatments to be a direct aggression against sexual freedom, and those who defend freedom of religion and the right of parental choice.

In the United States there is a medical and scientific consensus referring to the “potentially harmful” nature of sexual reorientation therapies and the absence of evidence in terms of effectiveness. That was the conclusion the APA reached in 2009 after a two year study, where it warned about the possibility that people subjected to such therapies would suffer depression or develop suicidal tendencies, among other health hazards. This is the criteria supported by the Republican New Jersey governor and Catholic, Chris Christie, when signing the law. Even though the APA opposes this type of conversion treatment, it does not expressly prohibit them, and its ethical practice guide states that patients cannot be prevented from accessing the treatment they seek under their right to freedom of religion. In reply to the questions asked by this newspaper, the APA has insisted that they do not have a precise stance regarding these kinds of therapy.

The defenders of the treatments to modify homosexuality or mitigate the sexual desire toward people of the same sex turn to this argument of freedom of choice and apparent neutrality in order to defend their right to make use of them and oppose the prohibitions in these laws. The California law has been frozen in the courts for almost a year after being denounced by gay conversion therapy practitioners and the Pacific Justice Institute. In their brief, the PJI maintained that this regulation was against the right to freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. After the judicial decision, the regulation may come into force at the beginning of next year, as stipulated.

“This legislation prevents young people who want to change their sexual urges from getting the help they need, it prohibits professionals with a degree from practicing and parents from providing their children with the solutions they deem convenient. It is completely unconstitutional and we are willing to take matters to the Supreme Court,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, in a phone conversation.* Dacus is categorical with those who denounce the danger for the health of patients that undergo the reconversion therapy. “There are many psychiatrists and psychiatry associations that endorse the efficiency of such therapies. In several occasions, the attraction to the same sex is a consequence of the absence of healthy relationships with the father or the mother or develops as a consequence of sexual abuse in childhood and these therapies help to put a stop to said causes,” he holds.*

In the 1970s, at the same time that the movement in support of gay rights gained momentum, most psychology and psychiatry associations no longer considered homosexuality as a mental illness — the APA in 1973, the World Health Organization in 1990 — and the sexual reorientation therapies, going back to Freud, began to fade away. However, at the mercy of religious and ultraconservative groups, as those who advocate that homosexuality is caused by multiple factors, such as sexual abuse, absent fathers or mothers, insults, exposure to sexually explicit language, etc., started to grow stronger, the doors opened for an industry of therapists, spiritual retreat centers and organizations which have attracted thousands of confused youths and adults and they, sometimes driven by reactionary and conservative family members, believe they can get rid of their sexual instincts.

This is what happened to James Guay, a qualified psychotherapist who works, mainly, with homosexuals and transsexuals. Between the ages of 12 and 20, Guay voluntarily attended sexual reconversion therapies with an ex-gay Christian psychologist. “In my family I was God’s abomination, doomed to hell. I believed that and tried to do everything in my power to change it,” he says in a phone conversation. “Such therapies stigmatize homosexuals even more, stressing how unacceptable it is to be gay, increasing the shame, in particular when they show you other patients who claim to have been cured. It makes you think that there must be something really wrong with you because you are not even capable of changing like the rest of them,” he states.* A lot of Guay’s patients are homosexuals who have gone through this kind of sexual conversion treatments. His testimony was very important when it came to passing the law in California.

At the heart of this debate lies the matter of whether or not sexual orientation can be altered by means of counsel or therapy, which implies acknowledging that homosexuality is not something natural. There are different psychoanalytic theories and methods considered in the professional practice — the APA appears more neutral in this regard —, such as sexual identity, repairing, gender assertion, gender completion or specific context therapy, and others which are on the sidelines of more or less medical tendencies, exploited by religious organizations, ex-gay groups and other institutions that have turned conversion into a juicy industry.

For a $650 weekend (490 euros), People Can Change offers the possibility to participate in the Journey into Manhood that offers 48 hours of individual and group exercises, visualizations, socializing through manly activities… in camping or tourist centers in the middle of nature for groups of up to 32 men who want to eliminate their attraction toward other men.” Journey into Manhood offers their participants the opportunity to explore the underlying circumstances that were hidden which may have caused an inner conflict and created their attraction toward people of the same sex,” says its founder, Richard Wyler, who defends his work as not harmful or detrimental to the mental stability of the patients, as advocated by the AMA or Guay.* “All such assertions are filled with prejudice against gays and are against those who want to be guided and remain faithful to their religious morality and their ideals. There is no therapy that is 100% beneficial for anyone.”*

Recently, a group of former patients have brought an action for consumer fraud against Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing, a New Jersey organization similar to People can Change.

In spite of its defenders’ strong belief, the ex-gay movement is riddled with apologies and shocking retractions. On June 19th of this year, the most influential and largest American organization of the ex-gay movement, Exodus International, was dissolved after issuing a statement asking for the gay community’s forgiveness for promoting treatments aimed at changing the sexual orientation of homosexuals. Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, whose 2003 study in favor of sexual reconversion therapies provided a scientific basis for the defenders of these practices to argue their efficiency, acknowledged last year that his research on the cure for homosexuality had no scientific foundation and apologized to the gay community.

Latin America: Between Prohibition and Proliferation

New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are working on similar regulations to those passed by California and New Jersey. Even though these two states are pioneers in prohibiting sexual reconversion therapies in minors, other countries have also legally prevented its overall implementation. In Argentina, these kinds of treatments are banned by the National Mental Health Act. In article 3c) it states that “under no circumstances may a diagnosis be made in the field of mental health on the grounds of sexual choice or identity alone. “

Brazil banned these therapies in 1999, but in June of this year, Rep. Marcos Feliciano, an evangelical pastor, member of the Social Christian Party and President of the Human Rights Commission in the Brazilian lower house, submitted a law project to raise the veto.

In the face of these prohibitions, groups offering these treatments to erase homosexuality are starting to become increasingly visible, many of which are supported by the evangelical church. In 2011, Ecuador closed over 20 illegal clinics. Then the Provincial Health Division in Guayas made sure that in the entire country there could be over 200 centers of this kind. Likewise, in Peru, there are more organizations offering reorientation therapies, CREHO (Center for Restoration of Homosexuals), being one of the most important.

In Germany, the Bundestag unanimously approved in 2002 a declaration against these therapies. In Spain there is no legislation prohibiting such practices, though in 2010, the Generalitat of Catalonia investigated several centers that offered similar treatments. A number of Spanish dioceses have published on their websites guidelines to discourage homosexuality based on Bible readings and the life of saints.

*Editor’s note: The original translation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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