A Gay Dad Sounds Off on California's Proposed Ban on Administering 'Ex-Gay' Therapy to Children

The California legislature has passed another bill in an effort to create a state where the society is truly affirming and equal for all. This bill has the objective of making our state safe for teens and children. Ironically, the kids in question here are also the ones who are most at risk for bullying and suicide. This time, the issue is not about either of those dangers to them, at least not directly; it is to save them from damage from their own parents, even though said parents believe in their hearts that they are doing good, or just don't want the neighbors to talk.

What the Bill Is About

The legislation states that a mental health provider may not seek to change an individual's sexual orientation if that person is under the age of 18. This includes efforts to "change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex."

The "reparative therapy" this bill seeks to limit has been regarded as harmful by the American Psychiatric Association, the American School Counselor Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association Governing Council, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Pan American Health Organization.

Concerns Against It

Of course, the "ex-gay" movement claims that this is "an unconstitutional attempt to deny parental rights everywhere," "usurping the civil rights of parents who support their child's right to receive therapy for unwanted same-sex attractions, especially when that child has been sexually molested," and "fascism." They claim that it ignores conjecture about "psychological and physical health risks of sodomy" and is based on "biased information without consulting the ex-gay community."

Me Sounding Off

It was surprising, at least to me, that at first, Jo Linder-Crow, executive director of the California Psychological Association, and a team of her colleagues were against the bill unless it was amended according to their demands. Those demands were not, in my opinion, all within the purview of doing what was best for kids, however. One of their leading concerns was that the bill's definition of "sexual orientation change" was too vague, which they feared might have left some therapists vulnerable to lawsuits if they so much as tried to help a young client explore his or her sexual orientation ("We don't support anything that brings this wider birth of legal action against psychologists," Ms. Linder-Crow said). They also asserted that minors should be able to choose to undergo the therapy themselves if they are deemed "mature."

Last year, Ms. Linder-Crow had no qualms with pushing to make it illegal for children to ski without helmets. The bill was vetoed, much to her disappointment. She did not seem concerned that either parents or "mature" kids be consulted regarding that practice. There did not seem to be much ballyhooing over the specifics of what "wearing" a helmet consisted. Then again, there was no reason that someone would wear a helmet and then go sue their therapist.

On Aug. 17 Ms. Linder-Crow and her team changed their position on Sen. Lieu's bill, stating:

CPA has a strong track record of supporting measures that protect vulnerable groups, and has long been an ally of the LGBT community. Of course we want to ensure that legitimate therapy regarding normal developmental issues of sexual orientation and identity is readily available to minors, and it is also our job to protect our members from undue risk. However, consistent with the overwhelming weight of research available, we believe that Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, where the therapist's intent is to direct, redirect, or influence an individual's sexual orientation, are potentially harmful and have no place as a part of legitimate psychological practice. We are continuing to work with the bill's Author to put measures in place that will clarify this important distinction, as a protection to licensed mental health professionals.

I do see some validity in their original concern for protecting a child's right to choose his or her own therapy if the child is "mature" enough; I think 12 years old and above is generally acceptable if the child can make a "mature" decision. However, Sen. Lieu's bill does to refer to normal situations. It refers to cases where the entire motivation to change is based on outside stigma and family and religious pressure. When it comes to "reparative therapy," it is unthinkable that coercion would not be present, at least unconsciously. Coercion is the basis for why we vehemently prohibit many things in the sexuality arena, from statutory rape to sexual harassment. I can think of no harm in asking even a seemingly willing participant to wait until the age of consent for "feeling modification techniques."

As far as being sued, professionals need to be held accountable.

Therefore, my take (and I hope Governor Brown agrees) is that the children of California need this protection. As a parent, I am vigilant in my responsibilities, and I am a "Daddy Grizzly" when it comes to caring for my kids. But I understand that I am not all-knowing, so when I face boundaries, I may protest (like my children) and feel that my autonomy is being threatened, but inside I welcome them. I welcome being restricted from doing things to my children, through ignorance or carelessness, that may inadvertently put them at risk. For example, I'm glad that I'm not allowed to expose them to adult materials, illicit substances, or compulsion-inducing behaviors, and that I am not allowed to leave them alone in a car. I would have even welcomed Linder-Crow's ski helmet law.

Even if I had a dogmatic, evangelical agenda, I would not want that to harm my children, no matter what. If I fall in the shower, every lick of sense is knocked out of my head, and I decide that I'm going to send my boys to some crackpot therapist to make them gay, go ahead and stop me. Please. Seriously. (And something tells me that the ex-gay flag bearers would do everything in their power to do prevent me from sending my kids to that kind of therapy.)

I want my children safe. I want your children safe. Mental health professionals have concluded that risks from "ex-gay" therapies include "undermining self-esteem, connectedness and caring, important protective factors against suicidal ideation and attempts."

Our kids will all be living in this world together, and if you screw up yours with damaging, manipulative "therapy," it will harm far more than just them.

So, I'll tell you what: Let's let them all get to 18. Let them have their childhood and develop to become themselves. If, in that process, you have made them want to change, they can then go to the therapist you choose.

But I hope they won't.