(Weekly Column)

A broad consensus is emerging in New Jersey that clinical attempts to change one’s sexual orientation is harmful and ineffective. It is a waste of time and money and can leave permanent psychological scars.

For example, the editorial board of The Star-Ledger acknowledges that so-called conversion (aka reparative) therapy “is a terrible idea” that “is intended to twist a person’s very nature out of shape.” The Buononewspaper refers to the practice as “pure quackery” and concludes, “Any rational person would oppose it.”

After a long period of equivocation, Gov. Chris Christie’s spokesman, Kevin Roberts, finally acknowledged that the governor “does not believe in conversion therapy” and claimed that he thinks “people’s sexual orientation is determined at birth.” His Democratic challenger, Sen. Barbara Buono (pictured), has been an outspoken advocate against such so-called “therapy.”

Furthermore, all respected medical and mental health associations agree that there is no evidence that one can go from gay to straight through therapy. For example, The World Health Organization said it is “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”

The American Psychological Association has said that the groups who promote conversion therapy can “create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.” The American Medical Association stated they, “oppose any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder.” The American Psychiatric Association believes: “The potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great, including depression, anxiety and self destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self hatred already experienced by the patient.”

Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that religious “ex-gay” programs have no more success than reparative therapy. For instance, the president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, admitted last year, “99.9 percent of them (his clients), have not experienced a change in their orientation.” He went on to condemn reparative therapy, claiming, “For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ – that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.”

So, there is general agreement that this practice does not work and an understanding that it is solely based on the personal biases of fringe therapists, rather than mainstream professional opinion. Furthermore, a study by Dr. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project found that LGBT teens that experienced negative feedback from their family after they came out were 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times more vulnerable to severe depression, and 3 times more likely to use drugs than their non-LGBT counterparts. Clearly, taking a child to an anti-gay therapist to try to change the fundamental nature of who they are can reasonably be construed as the very “negative feedback” than can lead to self-destructive behaviors.

Yet, despite the incontrovertible evidence, there are some misguided individuals who still advocate the cruel and irrational position of throwing our LGBT children to the wolves by choosing not protect them from obvious and indisputable harm.Christie

The objections against Assemblyman Tim Eustace’s bill to stop this preventable form of child abuse are irresponsible and incoherent. For instance, the Star-Ledger editorial board argued, “there’s an important distinction between what is a terrible idea and what should be illegal.” This is true, but we usually draw that line where one’s unhealthy personal behavior begins to affect others. For example, smoking is a bad idea that we don’t prohibit, however, we do ban it in bars and restaurants because of second-hand smoke. Similarly, adults can freely choose a dangerous therapy, but gay youth are passive victims often forced, against their will, to enter programs that will likely lead to deterioration in self-esteem and mental health.

How, exactly, is such inhumane treatment in the state of New Jersey fair or just?

The newspaper makes the false assumption that the bill “won’t have much effect on the fringe practice of this therapy” because “it’s primarily practiced by religious leaders, counselors or life coaches who aren’t licensed.” This viewpoint shows unfamiliarity with these programs and fails to consider that unlicensed practitioners regularly point to the existence of licensed therapists to bolster their own credentials and claim this form of quackery is legitimate.

Moreover, few people would make the inane argument that the FDA should stop its approval process for drugs simply because people will still buy unregulated supplements. No one suggests that we don’t need the EPA because some companies will exploit loopholes to pollute. People will continue to litter, but we don’t use this as an excuse to abolish laws against it.

Similarly, just because a few unethical, unlicensed charlatans will still engage in reparative therapy, does not justify giving the barbaric practice the state’s imprimatur and offering such quacks free rein to psychologically damage gay youth.

The most peculiar objection to the bill is that this form of psychological voodoo should not be regulated because it is “strictly a form of talk therapy.” This fails to distinguish between medical speech – which is regulated — and the words of a talk radio host, a psychic, or a man on the street simply giving his opinion. If I tell a woman recovering from a heart attack that she can best recover on a diet of doughnuts and French fries, it’s simply a foolish suggestion. However, if a physician offered such advice it might be considered malpractice. Likewise, it actually matters what licensed therapists in the state of New Jersey tell their clients, and they have no business imparting to gay youth that they are mentally ill, sexually broken, and need to be fixed.

starledger1Finally, great deference should be given to parents on how they bring up their children. However, raising a child does not give one the unlimited capacity to ruin them. Society has a long tradition of intervening, when necessary, to stop neglect or abuse of children. For instance, a parent cannot use religious beliefs to deny a child critical medical treatment. A father can’t force a daughter to undergo female circumcision or cite a Bible verse about “sparing the rod” to justify beating his son. The mental anguish and trauma caused by reparative therapy are also a form of abuse that must be addressed.

We all agree that reparative therapy is ineffectual and detrimental to the mental health of vulnerable youth who need our love and support. There is simply no excuse to bury our heads in the sand while this exploitation occurs in our communities. To do so would be an abdication of leadership that sets a dangerous precedent. We must step up and act now to stop an insidious and injurious form of child abuse that is hurting too many of our sons and daughters in New Jersey.