California is on its way to banning licensed therapists from providing “sexual orientation change efforts,” also referred to as “gay cure” therapy, for minors. The bill has been approved in the state assembly and now moves to the Senate. If the bill passes, California will become the first state to ban such therapy. “Gay cure” treatment has long been controversial and is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association. The practice recently gained national attention after rumors surfaced about gay conversion therapy being offered at Michele Bachmann’s husband Marcus’ counseling center.
The outlook is good for this bill in California, but one question remains: will the bill be accomplish its intended purpose to protect gay teens?
The History of “Gay Cure” Therapy
The use of therapy to “treat” homosexuality became widespread after the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) published in 1952 classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The classification remained until it was removed in 1973 as more researchers such as Alfred Kinsey presented evidence which questioned the legitimacy of the treatment of homosexuality as mental illness. The victory was not a complete, as homosexuality was replaced in the DSM-IV with gender identity disorder, used to describe individuals whose expressed gender is incompatible with the gender assigned at birth.
After many licensed therapists ceased offering “gay cure” therapy, religious groups took up the cause. These groups usually offer conversion therapy from “ex-gay” members.
Besides religious groups, one of the biggest proponents of conversion therapy is the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization which offers the treatment and claims in its mission statement that “clients have the right to claim a gay identity, or to diminish their homosexuality and to develop their heterosexual potential.” David Pruden, vice president of NARTH, has spoken out against California’s bill, calling it “a solution in search of a problem.” Pruden cited an example of a child who has been molested by an adult of the same sex to argue against the bill’s restriction on therapists, but the language has already been modified to protect legitimate therapy and discussion of sexual orientation.
There are numerous approaches taken by those who claim to be able to cure homosexuality. The most common is conversion therapy, sometimes referred to as reparative therapy. Conversion therapy involves attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual through behavior modification. Often, this involves encouraging patients to adhere to gender norms and spend time with heterosexual “mentors.” Boys may be encouraged to play sports while girls may be encouraged to wear makeup.
This type of treatment brings to mind Judith Butler’s theory on gender performance, which is centered on the idea that gender is a series of performative acts rather than inherent. Butler asserts that those who do not perform their gender “correctly” are punished, just as the children forced into conversion therapy are being punished. Although the practice has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association it is still prevalent throughout the country.
Limits of the Bill
The bill is a step in the right direction in terms of protecting gay teens, but it may not be effective enough. For starters, the bill only affects licensed therapists. This means that religious groups, the most ardent supporters and providers of conversion therapy, are exempt. Exodus International, an enormous “gay conversion” organization, has over 200 centers across the United States. Teenagers are still susceptible under the bill and could still be forced to undergo conversion therapy if their parents or guardians put them in the hands of religious organizations that offer such treatment.
There may also be a loophole with gender dysphoria, which is defined as “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender”. This condition recently replaced gender identity disorder in the most recent edition of the DSM-IV-TR. Gender dysphoria is recognized as a mental disorder and can be treated as such. Just as gender identity disorder in years past, gender dysphoria could be used as a diagnosis to circumvent restrictions on treatments like conversion therapy.
The bill is certainly a step in the right direction, and it has brought the issue to light once again. But until there are comprehensive restrictions on bogus “gay cure” and gender reparative treatments across the board, gay teens will never be fully protected.