Looking at the Context: Why California's Conversion Therapy Ban for Minors Matters

A new law banning conversion therapy for minors in California will spare numerous kids from having to endure yet another toxic environment and, in some cases, may help to save their lives.
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Thank goodness.

That was my reaction when I read on Sunday that California Governor Jerry Brown had signed a bill outlawing sexual orientation conversion therapy (also known as reparative therapy) for people under 18, making California the first state to do so. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors have long known that the practice is not only not effective, but harmful to participants, who as a result often develop a negative self-image, become depressed, and sometimes commit suicide. While it's established that conversion therapy is bad, it is easy to forget how its context makes it worse: it's generally part of a double (or triple) whammy in which a lesbian, gay, or bisexual teenager lacks a safe environment not only in their home and school, but their therapist's office, too. That's what makes California's new law so important.

How a few key groups--family, friends, and schools--treat an LGB teen's sexual orientation can greatly influence that teen's mental health. Schools are often far from affirming; GLSEN's 2011 National School Climate Survey found that 82% of LGBT teens were harassed at school because of their sexual orientation, while 64% felt unsafe at school. A good social support network can give an LGBT teen resilience, but having anti-gay friends can contribute to the stigma LGBT teens feel. How open-minded parents are can be a tossup, with a recent Pew Research Center survey finding that one-third of adults believe that homosexuality should be discouraged by society, while many more stopped short of believing that lesbian and gay people should have equal rights.

That's where the therapist comes in. The kids who are forced to participate in conversion therapy are already among those whose parents are against homosexuality. At least four-fifths of these kids face harassment at school, too, though I'd bet that it's more since anti-gay parents are more likely than others to live in socially conservative areas. A therapist who affirms that a gay teenager is okay for being himself and helps him find ways to cope with parents who believe he's a sinner and classmates who taunt him with "no homo" and "faggot" can be a major help in a world where many people are against him. But a therapist who encourages the same conflicted kid to try desperately hard to become something that he is not, and teaches him to feel like a failure if he is true to himself, builds on all the negative messages he gets at home and at school. Such a therapist is yet another barrier to positive mental health.

Every person needs the affirmation that it's okay to be themselves; without it, it is hard to feel comfortable in one's own skin. When a person of authority, especially a person whose job is to help others, tells a person struggling with her identity and people's prejudices about her identity that she is a failure for being true to herself, it is one of the most harmful things they can do.

Which comes back to my "thank goodness" moment. Starting on January 1, 2013, it will be illegal to practice this kind of pseudo-therapy on minors in California. For a gay kid grappling with the tension between being himself and trying to appease his prejudiced family, this new law ensures that should he find himself in a therapist's office (by his own choice or his family's), he is protected from a practice that tries to tear his identity to shreds and build him back up as someone he is not. While the government can't force parents to change their views, and it ought to do a better job at promoting affirming environments in schools, at least California is taking this important step to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT population.

It is possible that parents who would have sent their lesbian and gay kids to conversion therapists may simply not send them to therapy at all (though this is the better of the two options). Regardless, this law will spare numerous kids from having to endure yet another toxic environment and, in some cases, may help to save their lives.

As good as this new law is, California is only one state. For the other 49, there is no moment too soon to follow suit.

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