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Last week, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a California law barring psychological treatment aimed at turning gay youth straight. Liberty Counsel, a religious-based legal and public policy group, had filed an injunction against the law before it took effect earlier this year.
In a unanimous opinion, the panel said that attempts to change a minor’s sexual orientation though intense therapy appeared dangerous and that California properly illustrated that gay to straight therapy (aversion therapy) falls outside the realm of the scientific mainstream.
Gay aversion therapy attempts to utilize psychological treatment to rid individuals of homosexuality and replace it with heterosexual desires. Gay aversion therapy uses pseudoscientific tactics to attempt to turn gay individuals straight. These tactics include, in some cases, the application of electric shock therapy to the hands or genitals, nausea inducing drugs simultaneously administered while the patient views homoerotic material, masturbatory reconditioning, visualization, social skills training, psychoanalytic therapy, and spiritual interventions.
The American Psychological Association (the “APA”), the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, condemns these alternative practices and reaffirms the fact that homosexuality does not classify as a mental disorder.
The APA reports that some individuals have been harmed during these sexual orientation change efforts by an increase in distress and depression. The APA also reports that gay aversion therapy represents a significant cause of distress and negative self-image to those individuals who have participated in therapy but did not shed their homosexuality.
The APA “encourages mental health professionals to provide assistance to those who seek sexual orientation change by utilizing affirmative multiculturally competent and client centered approaches that recognize the negative impact of social stigma on sexual minorities and balance ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity.”
In line with the APA’s findings, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation through intense therapy seemed dangerous and that California, through reports, experts and anecdotes involving suicides, substance abuse and other behavior by young therapy recipients, properly showed that aversion efforts have been rejected for good reason.
Judge Susan Graber, one of the judges sitting on last week’s panel, said, “one could argue that children under the age of 18 are especially vulnerable with respect to sexual identity and that their parents’ judgment may be clouded by this emotionally charged issue as well.”
When California’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed the law, he said that those who practice aversion therapy practice “quackery” and that aversion therapy has “no basis in science or medicine.”
On August 19, New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, signed a similar law into effect. The New Jersey law bars any licensed therapist, psychologist, social worker or counselor from using therapies to change the sexual orientation of children under the age of 18.
The New Jersey law, like the California law, comes with its challengers. Liberty Counsel, representing parties that filed a challenge against the New Jersey law, claims that the law does not respect the rights of clients to make decisions about treatment, interferes with a therapist’s First Amendment rights to free speech, and restricts a family’s right to informed consent about the therapeutic options available to help minors “reduce or eliminate their unwanted same-sex attractions, behaviors or identity.”
While the New Jersey law’s fate remains to be seen, the upholding of California’s law banning gay aversion therapy serves as a significant step forward in protecting the rights of homosexual minors, a group often stigmatized in an age of cyber bullying and changes in the legal landscape.