It's been a rough few weeks for "gay conversion" therapy. On May 17, the World Health Organization issued a report calling gay-to-straght therapy "a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people." The next day, The New York Times reported that Dr. Robert Spitzer, a towering figure in psychiatry and one of the main intellectual sources underpinning such therapy — also called "reparative therapy" or "sexual reorientation" — is recanting his landmark 2003 study. And on Wednesday night, California took a big step toward becoming the first state to ban all forms of ex-gay therapy on minors. Here, a look at the practice and its crumbling support:
Who came up with "conversion therapy"?
It's based on Sigmund Freud's notion that all people are born with both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies, and can move in either direction on a sexual continuum. Conversion therapy was fairly common before the 1970s, usually involving heavy Freudian psychoanalysis. In the 1990s, the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) aligned itself with socially conservative groups, and together they launched a high-profile campaign to re-legitimize the practice.
What's happening in California?
Late May 30, the California Senate passed a bill, 23-13, that would prohibit licensed therapists from performing conversion therapy on gay and lesbian youths. "The entire medical community is opposed to these phony therapies," said state Sen. Ted Lieu (D), the bill's sponsor, before its passage. "These non-scientific efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish. It's not just that people are wasting their time and money on these therapies that don't work, it's that these therapies are dangerous."
What happens next?
The California Assembly is expected to take up the bill in June. Like the Senate, the lower chamber is controlled by Democrats. The bill's main champion, gay-rights group Equality California, says Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will almost certainly sign it.
Why is this a big deal?
Supporters of the bill say "reparative therapy" isn't only harmful, painful, and coercive, but also based on a flawed, psychologically damaging premise: That homosexuality is a disease or mental disorder. It was officially considered a disorder by psychologists until 1973, when it was reclassified in the American Psychiatric Association's influential diagnostic manual. California's move to keep "desperate mothers and fathers" from "making a severely damaging parenting decision" is as "monumental" and "historic" as the Defense of Marriage Act being ruled unconstitutional by a federal court on Thursday, says Koa Beck at Mommyish. Adults will still be "free to engage in whatever quack business they choose," but vulnerable kids will be spared.
What do the bill's opponents say?
NARTH warns that the bill "transfers the oversight of proper psychological care from mental health professionals and licensing boards into the hands of politicians." Conversion therapy works, and can actually solve depression and a life of anguish, the group argues. "I used to be extraordinarily depressed, clinically depressed twice; full of anxiety, didn't know what to do with my homosexual feelings, and reparative therapy helped save my life," says NARTH's David Pickup.
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