California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a first-of-its-kind bill on Sept. 29 prohibiting “reparative” therapy that seeks to change a minor’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
Bill SB 1172, introduced by State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles County), applies only to mental health professionals licensed or credentialed by the state who seek to perform the therapy on someone below the age of 18.
It exempts unlicensed therapists or counselors, including those associated with religious organizations.
Despite the exemptions, Brown and Lieu called the legislation an important step in protecting juveniles from a practice they describe as unscientific and harmful. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2013.
“This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle. “These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”
In a statement released Sept. 30, Lieu said, “No one should stand idly by while children are being psychologically abused, and anyone who forces a child to try to change their sexual orientation must understand this is unacceptable,” he said.
The nation’s two largest mental health professional organizations – the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association – have long opposed reparative therapy on grounds that no credible scientific studies have confirmed that someone’s sexual orientation can be changed. The two groups have also pointed to studies showing that seeking to change a person’s sexual orientation could lead to depression and other harmful side effects. The groups didn’t take an official position on SB 1172.
But more than a dozen state and national mental health associations did endorse the legislation, including the California Psychological Association, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
SB 1172 passed in the California Senate and Assembly by comfortable margins in late August along party lines, with no Republicans voting for it.
Opponents, including the Pacific Justice Institute, announced they plan to challenge the law in court, saying it violates First Amendment free-speech rights. The Pacific Justice Institute said the law also would deny parents the right to choose the type of therapy and care for their children.
The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which promotes reparative therapy, issued a statement on its website saying if SB 1172 became law, “licensed therapists in California who would otherwise be willing to assist minor clients in modifying their unwanted same-sex attractions and behaviors will be seriously jeopardizing their professional livelihoods.”
LGBT advocacy groups hailed the law as an important breakthrough in their ongoing efforts to oppose reparative therapy.
“Governor Brown today reaffirmed what medical and mental health organizations have made clear,” said Clarissa Filgioun, board president of the statewide LGBT group Equality California. “Efforts to change minors’ sexual orientation are not therapy; they are the relics of prejudice and abuse that have inflicted untold harm on young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Californians.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, pointed to research showing that reparative therapy causes “serious, lasting harm” to LGBT youth.
“It is time to safeguard the most vulnerable among us by ending the abusive practice of subjecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to damaging attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender expression,” he said.
Some supporters of the bill expressed concern that its sponsors weakened the measure by dropping a provision that would have required reparative therapy patients of any age to sign a consent form acknowledging the therapy’s potential harm and lack of scientific merit.
Another provision dropped from the original version of the bill would have required mental health practitioners to file a report to the state about the reparative therapy they perform. The provision called for the state to keep records on the therapy and issue an annual report about the “risks and limited potential” of the therapy.
“The focus of the bill narrowed to only minors who were succumbing to psychological abuse,” Ray Sotero, a spokesperson for Lieu, told the Blade.
“Additionally, for fiscal purposes, we removed the reporting requirement and focused instead on a ban for children and adolescents as a first, much-needed step,” Sotero said.
A similar bill calling for banning reparative therapy for minors is pending in the New Jersey Legislature.
Brown signed the California measure less than a week after close to 50,000 people signed a petition organized by HRC urging him to sign it. HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz and Equality California spokesperson Stephan Roth said supported the bill all along.
“By way of our petition, we wanted to make sure that he knew that this issue was a tremendously important one to our community and most especially LGBT you,” Sainz said.
New York psychiatrist Jack Drescher, who’s gay and is a former chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on LGBT Issues, said he has mixed views on the possible impact of laws to ban reparative or “conversion” therapy.
“Most of the people doing conversion therapies are unlicensed, so the bills in California and New Jersey would not affect them as they only concern state-licensed professionals,” Drescher told the Blade.
He said such laws are subject to court challenge, and anti-gay groups supporting reparative therapy could claim a victory if a court overturns a law banning the practice on constitutional grounds.
“On the other hand, in the event the law does pass constitutional muster, it would undoubtedly cast a chilling effect on some unlicensed professionals and perhaps even create a basis to support civil lawsuits against unlicensed practitioners,” he said.