Gov. Chris Christie made political news in making New Jersey the second state to ban gay conversion therapy for adolescents. But Christie’s presidential ambitions overshadowed the strange history of the practice he outlawed.
Conversion, or reparative therapy, is the fringe pseudo-science of converting gays and lesbians to the straight side. At its core, says Seattle psychologist Douglas Haldeman, conversion therapy assumes homosexuality is a disorder that needs curing, and has traction among religious fundamentalists.
“The people that do it are pretty far underground, because of the public shift in opinion against it. They’re not advertising,” said Haldeman, who has written dozens of papers on the practice and served on an American Psychological Association panel that concluded conversion therapy was not only bunk, but it poses real risks (depression, withdrawal, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts) for gay teens.
Here is Haldeman testifying on the issue in April.
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The APA isn’t alone. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Social Workers and the World Health Organization, among many others, have condemned conversion therapy (see the Human Rights Campaign roundup).
One line of thinking in conversion therapy has held that gay men have over-bonded with their mothers, and under-bonded with their fathers. That has led therapists to do such things as have gay patients strip naked and beat effigies resembling their mothers, or to beat punching bags with their mother’s picture, said Haldeman.
Marcus James, a Seattle author and gay activist, said he went through conversion therapy in 1999, when he was shipped off to his evangelical grandfather after starting a gay-straight alliance at Wilson High School in Tacoma. That led to him being stuck in a bathtub full of ice and being made to look at gay porn, apparently to associate an erection with pain, being hit with a Bible and subjected to a forced fast.
“I was very defiant, an activist, so it wasn’t going to work on me,” said James, author of a lightly fictionalized novel called “In God’s Eyes.” “But it ruined my relationship with my grandfather and a lot of my family.”
California’s groundbreaking ban on adolescent conversion therapy, set to take effect last January, is on hold pending a federal lawsuit filed by Liberty Counsel, a law firm which defends Christian religious freedom. Liberty Counsel said it will also seek to block New Jersey’s ban.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, proposed a bill, H.R. 1882, this year calling for Washington to study the science. It died in committee, but will automatically be reintroduced in January. Christie’s action shows “how clear the science is,” said Liias. “The fact that Chris Christie, a social conservative, would sign this bill sends a message that it’s more cut and dried, and we shouldn’t politicize it. We should do what’s right for our kids.”
Pass H.R. 1882. Better yet, ban this practice all together.