Conversion or “ex-gay” therapy continues to come under fire, this time in Michigan where Representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) has introduced House Bill (HB) 5703to ban “sexual orientation change efforts” for minors. While conversion therapy is not a widespread practice across the state, supporters of HB 5703 indicate that state-sanctioned exposure of even a single child to this type of therapy cannot be accepted. Introduced on July 16, 2014, the bill was referred to the Committee on Health Policy where it awaits action.
If HB 5703 advances in Michigan, the state would join California and New Jersey in banning conversion therapy for minors. Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, for minors is a thoroughly discredited practice that has no proven effect on changing sexual orientation, but a long-documented history of negative psychological effects on individuals. A 2009 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) detailed the mental health problems this therapy can cause, including depressive, anxious, and suicidal symptoms. Survivors of ex-gay therapy, such as 29-year-old Michigan native Patrick McAlvey (who began conversion therapy at age 11), have spoken out about the detrimental influence of this childhood trauma on their lives and healthy sexuality.
Both California’s and New Jersey’s laws survived lawsuits from ex-gay therapy proponents such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), who argue that the law prohibits them from respecting clients’ wishes. New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie initially expressed qualms about signing his state’s bill, but determined that regardless of parental preferences, children should be protected from a therapy with severe negative psychological consequences and no evidence of benefits or effectiveness. California state senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), lead sponsor of the state’s anti-conversion therapy bill, bluntly called the practice “psychological child abuse.”
Since the 1970s, the mental health community has come a long way in its understanding of sexual orientation. (Until 1973, the APA classified homosexuality as a psychological disorder.) As PRA’s research on the ex-gay movement has documented, the pseudoscientific ex-gay movement, which presents itself as having a more “compassionate” anti-gay stance, has suffered severe setbacks in recent years. The most well known national ex-gay advocacy organization, Exodus International, closed its doors—and apologized to those it has harmed—in June of 2013.
Other organizations, however, have hastened to fill the gap left by Exodus International’s disbanding, including the Christian Right think tank, the Family Research Council (FRC), and the Exodus breakaway Restored Hope Network. Some conservative state politicians have also continued to endorse reparative therapy. In June 2014, for example, the Texas Republican Party adopted an anti-LGBTQ party platform that “recognize[s] the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.” Last year in Maryland, it was discovered that a middle school was screening the film Acception as part of their health curriculum, which actively promotes ex-gay therapy. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX) continue to appear on school grounds, disseminating harmful misinformation about same-sex attraction to vulnerable teens.
Moreover, prominent evangelical Christians continue to peddle programs based on conversion therapy as effective and compassionate mental health care. As PRA’s LGBTQ and gender justice researcher, Cole Parke, discussed in a recent post, megachurch pastor Rick Warren has recently sought to increase awareness of mental health issues within the evangelical community and hosted a daylong event in March to “encourage individuals living with mental illness, educate family members, and equip church leaders to provide effective and compassionate care to any faced with the challenges of mental illness.” Yet part of his mental health initiative includes promotion of Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, which, among other things, offers “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction.” What this means, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”
The principles and practices of conversion therapy continue to have a tenacious foothold around the country. Celebrate Recovery’s endorsement of harmful and highly dangerous reparative therapy models, and the ongoing activities of PFOX and other groups, demonstrates that despite recent setbacks for ex-gay groups, constant vigilance by LGBTQ advocates and legislation like that introduced in Michigan remain necessary.
(A version of this article originally appeared on the SIECUS website.)