Jerry Spencer's counselor once placed bags of ice on his hands while showing him photos of men holding hands. Chaim Levin's "life coach" told him to slowly undress in front of a mirror while the coach stood several feet away and watched. James Guay's licensed therapist took a more conventional approach. He told Guay to try to fantasize about having sex with women.
All of these therapists and counselors practice something that goes by the name of "reparative therapy" or "conversion therapy." By any name, the idea behind it is the same: therapy can make gay people straight. It has been practiced in some form since the rise of therapy in the U.S. more than a half-century ago, but a series of high-profile attempts to curtail it have recently thrust it into the spotlight.
On Friday in California, a lawyer representing therapists and families who want to continue the practice went to court in the hope of blocking a new state law signed in September by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The law, which bans licensed therapists from engaging in the practice with minors, is the first of its kind in the U.S., and activists celebrated it as a milestone in the gay-rights movement. Matt Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, an evangelical legal group leading one of two lawsuits aimed at overturning the law, challenged the law on Friday in a federal court hearing in Sacramento, Calif. "I was pleased with how things went," Staver said after the session.
A ruling is expected next week. If the law survives these two legal challenges, it will go into effect at the start of 2013.
In a press release a day before the hearing, Liberty Counsel said it would argue that that law is an "astounding violation of the right to free speech and religious liberty."
Shannon Minter, legal director for The National Center for Lesbian Rights, or NCLR, which is defending a gay-rights group that has filed a motion to intervene to defend the law, said he was pleased with the hearing. "It went extremely well," he said. Minter said he has been fighting this practice for 20 years, but the battleground has changed in the last decade, as one by one the entire mainstream medical establishment, from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Psychological Association, renounced it. The World Health Organization, for example, has released a statement saying that such methods "lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being" of patients.
For both sides, the case represents another potential turning point for the practice nationwide. Since the California law entered the books, similar legislation has been proposed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of four former patients and two of their mothers against a conversion therapy group called Jews Offering New Alternatives For Healing, or JONAH, alleging that this organization, which does not employ licensed counselors, violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that counseling services could cure clients of being gay. Also this week, Rep. Jackie Spier (D-Calif.), introduced the Stop Harming Our Kids Resolution in Congress, the first federal action aimed at ending conversation therapy.
Both sides in the California case see it as critical to the overall question of whether this practice will endure. If the judge overrules the challenges to the law, that could help shore up the legal precedent, allowing similar laws to go forward elsewhere. On the other hand, if the judge rules that the law is unconstitutional, it could present a roadblock for activists who hope to see more states banning the practice.
However these lawsuits and legislative efforts turn out, gay-rights advocates say that by merely shining a light on conversion therapy, they're helping to end it. Christine Sun, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, "Our campaign was not just focused on vindicating the rights of conversion therapy survivors, but to destroy the very concept that a person could change from gay to straight."
"When people hear about the absurd treatment that goes on," Sun added, "that does a lot to change people's minds."
Staver, for his part, rejected the idea that the therapy practiced by his clients is absurd. In contrast with some counselors who engage in it, the therapists he represents have licenses. He said they practice "standard counseling techniques," like "counseling" and "listening."
Arthur Goldberg, the co-director of JONAH, issued a statement in response to the Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist those with unwanted same-sex attractions," he said.