LGBT POV: California ‘Ex-Gay’ Bill Expected to Hit Senate Floor This Week

May 29, 2012

By Karen Ocamb

In response to the ongoing tragedy of gay teen suicides – California state Sen. Ted Lieu and the LGBT lobbying group Equality California crafted a bill to protect minors and vulnerable adults from unscrupulous therapists who try to change a patient’s sexual orientation.

Lieu told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “These non-scientific efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish.”

The bill – SB 1172 – would ban so-called “reparative therapy” for any minor under the age of 18 – even if their parents want it. And adults would have to give informed consent.  But some psychologists say the bill is too broad. It allows patients to sue their therapists. AND critics argue that minors SHOULD be able to consent to such “change-therapy” under another 2010 law intended to help bullied minors seek mental health treatment without the consent of their parents.

Lieu told the Sacramento Bee that he is “trying to resolve concerns” over the bill – which is expected to hit the Senate floor sometime this week.

Lieu has some unexpected backup. Recently Dr. Robert L. Spitzer apologized to the gay community for his 2003 study saying homosexuality could be “cured.”

Additionally, on May 29, Max Hirsch, a client of the Southern Poverty Law Center, sent Lieu of support. Earlier this month, SPLC says, Hirsch filed a complaint with both the Oregon Psychiatric Association and the American Psychiatric Association after he was subjected to the unethical practice of conversion therapy by an Oregon psychiatrist.

Here’s Hirsch’s letter:

May 29, 2012

Senator Ted W. Lieu – District SD28

State Capitol, Room 4090
Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: Protect Californians Against Conversion “Therapy” (SB 1172)

Dear Senator Lieu,

I’m writing to express my support for California Senate Bill 1172 and speak out against the practice of conversion “therapy.” Even though I am not a Californian, my experience speaks to the need for passage of this bill and others like it nationally.

In January 2011, I left my university studies due to the bullying, ostracism, and prejudice I experienced after revealing that I’m gay to my peers. I returned home to Portland, Oregon and looked for a talk therapist to improve feelings of alienation and depression I suffered subsequent to rejection and hostility I experienced after I disclosed my orientation. My doctor recommended a psychiatrist, whom I began sessions with in February.

I had no reason to suspect that this therapy would involve gay conversion or reorientation therapy, especially since I knew that both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), among other prominent organizations of mental-health professionals, were against the practice and homosexuality hadn’t been in the DSM for nearly 40 years. However, after the first couple of sessions, the psychiatrist insisted I wasn’t gay, despite my repeated explanations that I was indeed gay and perfectly fine with my sexuality. I emphasized that I was in therapy to deal with social anxiety and depression I experienced after becoming more open about my orientation.

This psychiatrist began to explore potential causes of my sexuality, at different times positing that I had negative experiences with women that made me gay, that my failures at sports somehow influenced my sexuality, and that my weak connection with my father had somehow caused my sexuality.

As a result of these strange assertions and attacks on my identity, I eventually quit therapy with this doctor. Yet I soon received a call from him in which he admitted that perhaps he’d expressed “subconscious homophobia.” He also stated that given the time and effort I’d invested, it was important I continue therapy. My depression was getting worse, so I cautiously agreed to resume sessions. Still, after I returned to therapy, the psychiatrist resumed focusing on my sexuality. At one point, he claimed that my love life would always be dissatisfying, disappointing, and unstable as if this was informed medical advice; yet he was only rehashing negative stereotypical views of gay sexuality.

In the face of mounting evidence that he was working to alter my orientation and as my depression and anxiety worsened, I confronted the psychiatrist with my concerns that he appeared to be practicing conversion therapy. He replied that he didn’t think he personally would be able to change someone’s orientation, but concerns over conversion therapy were overblown and he expected it to increase in prevalence in the future. He claimed he hadn’t attempted to change a patient’s sexual orientation but admitted that he had studied under a prominent conversion therapist in New York. He then went on to explain that he disagrees with the word “homophobia” because it “pathologizes” people who dislike gay people; yet “heterophobia” is a problem that exists among gay people. After this, I terminated my treatment with this therapist.

I know through personal experience that conversion therapy is harmful and unfortunately can be practiced upon unsuspecting clients by anti-gay therapists or doctors – or forced on unwilling patients due to anti-gay views of their family members or community who remain under the false impression that gay sexual orientation can and should be altered. My experience is that conversion therapy reinforces homophobia, non-acceptance, and hostility a gay person already faces in life. Yet this homophobia is all the more damaging coming from someone who is supposed to be supportive and objective as a trusted therapist or doctor. With the air of medical and psychological authority, gay conversion therapists burden their patients with the idea that they are blameworthy because they could change if they’d only try harder, leading to increased feelings of shame and depression. Such practitioners harmfully advise that gay people can’t expect to lead happy lives as they currently are, that fundamental aspects of their identity are nothing more than mentally disturbed feelings, and that homophobia directed against them is warranted and deserved.

The longer I saw the psychiatrist in Portland, the more depressed and anxious I became. The APA has warned that gay people who undergo conversion therapies, which inevitably reinforces negative societal messages about them, experience increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, and that evidence of these therapies ever being “successful” is spurious at best. I especially worry about young people who are forced into this dangerous mode of therapy by their families. The potential for lasting psychological harm or death from suicide is serious and the idea that this is currently legal is appalling, especially given that it’s an attempt to “cure” what isn’t even a disease. Given the true harm of this practice, it’s imperative to set clear legal boundaries to prevent practitioners from continuing the failed experiment of conversion therapy on vulnerable children and sometimes upon adult clients without providing facts necessary to form real consent. California senate bill 1172 would help protect LGBT people of all ages from psychological abuse and would set a precedent for similar progress nationwide. I strongly urge enactment of this bill in order to help spare others from this dangerous practice.


Maxwell Hirsh