Elections matter - not just because of who and what political ideology determines domestic and foreign policy but because of the cultural, legal and legislative climate that is created for the deterrence or advancement of civil rights. After California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1171, a law that prohibits licensed therapists from practicing junk science on young people by promising to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, NARTH and the "ex-gay" industry launched a legal and PR offensive to stop the law and its export to other states. NARTH may well be hoping that, given the right political climate, fighting SB 1172 could propel them into prominence in much the same way Prop 8 gave rise to the National Organization for Marriage.
The New York Times recently examined the "ex-gay" industry, which expert Wayne Besen deconstructed and eviscerated:
NARTH -- which is the leading "ex-gay" organization -- is to the study of sexual orientation what a mood ring is to the science of depression. Ex-Gay practices are a fringe PR gimmick designed to trick a majority of voters into believing that gay people can change so they can rationalize discrimination and justify poor treatment.....
The often desperate and vulnerable clients featured in today's NYT article are extremely susceptible to swaggering "ex-gay" therapists who appear to have all the answers. For many, if the therapy does not work, they will immediately become outcasts in the religious communities they grew up in. They can lose their family. If they are youth they can become homeless. In other words, there can be enormous incentives for claiming transformation, even when it is not true.
I interviewed Shannon Minter, the brilliant trans Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, on the NARTH lawsuit for Frontiers magazine. Here is that story, followed by outtakes of our interview that are also insightful.
NCLR's Shannon Minter on the NARTH Lawsuit
Though the American Psychiatric Association first removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, a backlash forced a delay until 1986. Until then it was an accepted for gays to go through forced lobotomies and other tortures to try to "cure" them of the supposed mental disorder. Anti-Gay Inc. freaked out over the APA's decision, eventually creating the concept that homosexuality was a sinful choice that lead to addiction - that could be cured or arrested through lots of prayer and behavioral modification.
"What we're concerned about is that homosexuals are in a traumatized condition and they need help," antigay Traditional Values Rev. Lou Sheldon told the Los Angeles Times in December 1989. "We're not anti-gay...It's very important that we love them as individuals. We know they need a lot of help." Sheldon said that treating gays was like helping alcoholics overcome their addictions and "compulsive behavior."
But in late 1991, 15 year old lesbian Lyn Duff discovered that "reparative therapy" was far from the passive talk therapy of AA or other addiction recovery programs. It was still torture. Duff's mother whisked her off to Rivendell Psychiatric Center in West Jordan, Utah where her "conversion" process entailed constant religious battery by Mormon missionaries and "aversion" therapy that included being forced to watch gay pornography while smelling ammonia, hypnosis, mind-altering drugs, and solitary confinement, as well as forcing her to wear dresses and put up with belittling peer pressure. After 168 days of hell, Duff escaped and fled to San Francisco - where she got help from law student Shannon Minter who worked on her case with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among other groups.
"It was so terrifying. I didn't realize that was still going on," Minter, now NCLR's Legal Director, told Frontiers. "I got so involved in tracking down other kids who had been in that same institution where she was - and I ended up talking to about a dozen of them who had been through this treatment. And I just saw first hand how devastated they were. And several of them did not make it. Several of them ended up dying by suicide."
That case inspired Minter to get involved in the LGBT legal movement - and also introduced her to Kate Kendell, now NCLR's executive director who was then at the ACLU in Utah helping attorneys investigate Rivendell.
Fast forward to 2012 and Minter and Kendell are fighting to save SB 1172, a bill authored by California State Sen. Ted Lieu that would prevent licensed mental health professionals from trying to change minors' sexual orientation or gender expression through practices deemed to be dangerous junk science. "Clearly, so-called conversion or reparative therapy is scientifically ineffective and has resulted in much harm," Lieu said. "Simply put, this is an unacceptable therapeutic practice."
After contentious hearings during which Anti-Gay Inc claimed parental rights were being quashed by government, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill on Sept. 30. "This bill bans non-scientific 'therapies' that have driven young people to depression and suicide," Brown said. "These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery."
On Oct. 4, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Liberty Counsel filed a federal challenge to the new law - which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. It is the second federal challenge. On Oct. 20, NCLR and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson filed a motion seeking to intervene on behalf of bill co-sponsor Equality California, asking the Sacramento court to allow them to defend SB 1172 alongside California Attorney General Kamala Harris (see their motion at: tinyurl.com/9qez5sh).
"These lawsuits do not have any legal merit at all. So I'm confident that this law is going to be upheld but we have to take them seriously," Minter said. He explained that the courts have never seen a law like this and might have a misconception that the law is a challenge to the beliefs therapists hold about sexual orientation.
"NARTH and Liberty Counsel want it to be about beliefs and ideology. They're presenting this as the state trying to suppress their point of view," Minter said. "We want to make sure the court understands it has nothing to do with that. This is about stopping therapists who are licensed by the state of California from engaging in practices that every leading mental health organization in the country has recognized are not only ineffective but actually put young people at risk of very serious harm, including death by suicide."
The practices also mislead and bilk parents who don't realize the harm done to their children. "And there is no end to it," Minter said. "It's based on these false narratives that kind of 'explain' their failure to 'cure' you so that you have to keep coming back and paying more money."
It is scary to realize that until SB 1172, state licensing boards had no law empowering them to take action against a state-licensed therapists who engage in quackery.
More from Shannon Minter:
I got involved in the LGBT legal movement in the first place after working on a case as a law student with a 15 year old lesbian from Los Angeles who had been sent to a treatment facility in Utah because of her sexual orientation. It was so terrifying. I didn't realize that was still going on. This is back in 1993. Lynn Duff.
When I started doing more research and investigation into that issue, I realized it was still happening all the time. And I got so involved in tracking down other kids who had been in that same institution where she was - and I ended up talking to about a dozen of them who had been through this treatment. And I just saw first hand how devastated they were. And several of them did not make it. Several of them ended up dying by suicide.
One young woman I will never forget - she was just such a lovely, smart young person. Obviously, so sensitive and intelligent and she got out of the facility and I stayed in touch with her and I was just really hoping she would make it - but she didn't. She ended up dying by suicide - she shot herself. I just wanted to do something about that issue so much. I actually got a Fellowship at NCLR to create some legal resources for young people who are being abused in a mental health system.
That was 19 years ago. And that's how I first met Kate [Kendell], actually, who is now our [NCLR] executive director. She was working at the ACLU of Utah at that time and she helped us investigate that facility. Since then, over the years, we've heard from so many young people who've been through these experiences and we've tried so hard to find a way to stop it. To find some way to stop therapists from being able to inflict this harm on young people.
But it was difficult for so many reasons. Trying to litigate this issue is really hard because the young people are so damaged. They are usually not in any kind of position to bring a lawsuit. There's a very short statute of limitations - it's usually only one year, if you're lucky, two or three years. And they're often not in touch with us until after that. Some of them would be homeless and just call me occasionally but I had no way of really tracking them down enough to bring a lawsuit. They were just too transient.
And we had a problem until recently: we couldn't get the mainstream mental health organizations to take strong positions on these practices. They were just going through their own internal process. Looking at this issue - there were still plenty of practioners who were defending it. It was a long process and it took a lot of work for a lot of people from within those organizations to say we really need to look at this, we need to look at the evidence, we need to look at the harm this is causing and we need to take a stand on these practices.
But now that has happened. Within the past five years, I can now say that all the leading mental health organizations have examined this issue and have taken formal public positions that these practices trying to change a young person's sexual orientation are ineffective and that they're dangerous and that they pose very serious risks.
So I am just so relieved that we can finally do something to stop the damage that's being caused and I'm so proud that California is the first state to pass a law like this. I don't think it will be the last - there are a number of states that are actively moving toward passing similar laws. But California is now the first and I think it's going to make a huge difference in the lives of so many young people.
And it's not just the young people who will not go through these abusive practices - but that threat that it might happen to you that hangs over the head of so many LGBT youth, knowing that it's possible that your family might be able to send you to a therapist like that or that if you reach out for help to a therapist that you might encounter somebody who might try to change your sexual orientation.
Not only have the therapists who do this hurt young people very badly, but they're bilking and misleading their parents. They're giving parents blatantly false information. Most parents - if they knew the harm that these practices cause would not be doing this. But there are still a lot of parents out there who don't have accurate information and they love their children - they think their children can't have a good life if they're gay and they're desperate for someone to tell them that their child's not really gay or that someone can prevent their child from being gay. And these therapists are taking advantage of these parents when they're in a very vulnerable moment. There is no end to it. It's based on these false narratives that kind of "explain" their failure to "'cure' you so that you have to keep coming back and paying more money.
These lawsuits do not have any legal merit at all. So I'm confident that this law is going to be upheld but we have to take them seriously. There are challenges to the law filed in federal court - this is a new law, the courts will not have seen a law like this before, and it is extremely important that the courts understand the correct legal framework for this law. It is an issue that can, in many ways, be misunderstood. So we want to make sure that we're able to share everything that we have learned and to make sure the court understand the impact of these practices on real people. I think that's absolutely critical. But the misconception that the court might have is that this is somehow about trying to disagree with the beliefs that these therapists have about sexual orientation or that sexual orientation can be changed. And it's not about trying to change what anyone believes. It's about stopping the very serious harm that is caused by these practices.
I'm very confident going into this. But I think it will be very important that the court understand right away that this is about protecting young people from practices that we know are extremely dangerous and harmful. And that is why the legislature passed this law and that is why the governor signed it. NARTH and Liberty Counsel - the organization representing them - they want to be about beliefs and ideology. They're presenting this as the state trying to suppress their point of view. And we want to make sure the court understands it has nothing to do with that. This is about stopping therapists who are licensed by the state of California from engaging in practices that every leading mental health organization in the country has recognized are not only ineffective but actually put young people at risk of very serious harm, including death by suicide.