At the end of September, California passed a law making it illegal for licensed therapists to counsel minors away from same-sex attraction. California Senator Ted W. Lieu, the lead author of the bill, designed it to prohibit therapies that seek to change the sexual orientation of the patient. He said in support of the bill:
Under the guise of a California license, some therapists are taking advantage of vulnerable people by pushing dangerous sexual orientation-change efforts. These bogus efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish. This is junk science and it must stop.
Lieu elsewhere called these practices “phony therapies” that are opposed by “the entire medical community.” While promoted as outlawing “junk science,” “phony therapies,” and “psychological abuse,” this law actually imposes significant limitations on the freedom of licensed therapists. It prohibits treatments, for persons under the age of 18, that are designed “to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.”
Therapists are barred from more than just what we might normally think of as “conversation therapy.” They are also forbidden from helping their patients reduce feelings of same-sex attraction at all, regardless of whether they are trying to fundamentally change the patient’s orientation.
The law does not apply to pastors and clergy, but it does apply to all forms of licensed mental health workers, including social workers and counselors. There is no exemption for therapists who have religious convictions. There’s no room for dissent at all.
The law’s authors view it as a sort of medical malpractice law. Chad Griffin, president of the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign, a group which lobbied heavily in favor of the bill, said this after it was signed: “LGBT youth will now be protected from a practice that has not only been debunked as junk science, but has been proven to have drastically negative effects on their well-being.”
Because they think there is nothing psychologically unhealthy about homosexual desires and behavior, trying to help somebody eliminate those things is not psychologically beneficial. Hence, it is not something that a therapist ought to be doing as part of their regulated medical work. Advocates of the law think it will prevent mental health workers from performing unnecessary and harmful treatments.
Today in California, a sixteen-year-old girl can get an abortion without even notifying her parents, let alone needing the father’s permission. But if that same girl has sexual feelings for another girl and wants to get rid of those feelings, she will not be able to receive the help of a therapist. That a legislative body in one of our states would think this way shows our spiritual blindness concerning things sexual and familial.
Our blindness leads us to misread our evidence. As Stanton L. Jones pointed out in the February 2012 edition of First Things, the psychological data on homosexuality is far from clear. We have not yet done studies that would genuinely show that homosexuality is not psychologically harmful.
Sociological data also give reason for concern. University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus recently concluded that children who grow up with homosexual parents do not fare as well as children who grow up with their married biological ones. So even if homosexual desires were not harmful to the individual, the marital destabilization and harm to children should give us pause. Were we viewing things aright we would recognize this. But “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.”
Because these kinds of laws are advanced under the banner of preventing child abuse, there is reason to worry they will not stop here. If it is abusive for a counselor to help a child reduce or eliminate their same-sex attraction, isn’t it also suspect for a parent to do the same? Free speech and religious freedom must have theirs limits, after all, and child abuse is certainly one of those limits. No one should be allowed to harm a child.
Here is Chesterton’s modern world where, along with the vices, “the virtues [in this case, the desire to protect children] are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and . . . do more terrible damage.” In our zeal to protect children we are undermining the very thing that offers them the most protection: the love of their father and mother.
Of the many reasons for sorrow over this law, love for our suffering neighbor looms large. We should know the pain that this law will bring to those who live in a struggle against their feelings of homosexual attraction and would like the help of a counselor in trying to remove those feelings. Friends, family, and the church always constitute the first sources of aid for these persons, but licensed therapists have their own special expertise to contribute.
Of course not everyone who has feelings of same-sex attraction and seeks to live faithfully to God wishes to use this kind of therapy. Some may not like this particular kind of treatment or may not wish to work with licensed medical professionals at all. Yet therapists can be and are a great help to many who are struggling with such feelings of attraction. For the youth in California, starting in January, they no longer can.
David Talcott is an associate professor of philosophy at the King’s College (NY).
“Senate panel cracks down on deceptive sexual-orientation conversion ‘therapies’”
“Protecting LGBT Youth from Psychological Abuse”
“State bans gay-repair therapy for minors”
Stanton L. Jones, “Same-Sex Science”
Mark Regnerus, “Queers as Folk: Does it really make no difference if your parents are straight or gay?”
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