New Law Takes Aim at Ex-Gay Hucksters

Reparative therapy has no more claim to science than exorcism.

In a moving essay published last spring, Gabriel Arana, the web editor of The American Prospect, relived in painful detail his relationship with California therapist Joseph Nicolosi. Arana met Nicolosi as a freshman in high school, and continued to work closely with him in a futile attempt to “cure” his budding homosexuality. At that time, Nicolosi was president of a pseudo-scientific organization of gay-conversion therapists known as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which rejects the notion that gayness is a normal and positive variation of human sexuality.

Arana subjected himself to more that three years of therapy under Nicolosi before abandoning treatment, moving away to college, and falling into a prolonged state of suicidal despair. The story ends with Arana—now a successful, well-adjusted and presumably happy adult gay man—taking back the control he once relinquished in a phone interview with a flippant and unrepentant Nicolosi.

Though compelling, Arana’s story is, sadly, not all that uncommon; each year hundreds, if not thousands, of adolescents are subjected to so-called gay-conversion, or “reparative,” therapy, and rarely do their stories lead to such a satisfying resolution. But thanks to a new state law, gay youths in California may soon be spared a similar narrative. The law, which will be the first of its kind in the U.S. when it goes into effect on Jan. 1, bans licensed or credentialed professionals from conducting gay-conversion therapy on patients under the age of 18. Therapists who defy the prohibition risk losing their licenses and other disciplinary action.

Opponents of the measure—a group composed mostly of conservative Christian advocacy groups, and gay-conversion therapists and a handful of their patients—are challenging the law on the grounds that it violates their First Amendment right to free speech. On Monday, a federal judge hearing one of two pending cases agreed, and issued an injunction blocking the law’s enforcement. On Tuesday, in a separate case, a second judge rejected a similar petition filed on behalf of three NARTH therapists (including Nicolosi) and their clients, ruling that the state is within its legal rights to enact a ban. In light of the contradictory rulings, the case is almost certain to move to the the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Although homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973—and gay-conversion therapy has been discredited or highly criticized by every major U.S. medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organization—a fringe industry of ideologically (and financially) motivated therapists has quietly carried on the work of trying to “cure” gay men and women.

In November, NARTH, which worked hard to prevent the passage of California’s new law, published a fear-laced polemic that equates denying one’s homosexuality with quitting smoking and blames parents who accept their kids’ gayness with subjecting them to “highly established harms such as HIV.”

Yet it hardly matters how deeply one is misinformed about the “dangers” of homosexual behavior; that’s because the most legally compelling problem with NARTH and other groups like it is that they promote a process that simply doesn’t work. The single-most influential study that made claims to the contrary has since been repudiated by its author; and the scant evidence that exists of conversion therapy’s success is purely anecdotal.

However, since most patients eventually come to terms with their homosexuality and prefer to put the whole experience behind them, few if any therapists have ever been publicly called to task for perpetrating what is, for all intents and purposes, consumer fraud. That changed last month when the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey group known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, on behalf of four plaintiffs who say they were conned into paying for useless therapy. The case marks the first time ex-gay therapy has been exposed in open court for the scam that it is.

While preempting parents’ authority to make therapeutic decisions—even bad ones—for their children may seem like extreme government intrusion, freedom of speech is hardly an adequate defense for selling what amounts to magic beans to vulnerable patients and their families. And since gay conversion therapy is a commercial service being sold  by licensed professionals, the state of California has a legal right to regulate its practice if it deems it is harmful or misleading to consumers.

Yet all is not lost for NARTH and its cohorts. In 2008 a Texas court ruled that a 17-year old girl who suffered a traumatic exorcism ritual at the hands of members of her Pentecostal church was not entitled to recompense based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent that says injuries that are solely psychological and occur within the confines of a religious practice cannot be compensated.

If groups like NARTH and JONAH wish to continue what they are doing without government interference, let them remove gay-conversion therapy from the realm of science and put it where it belongs, under the banner of religion, right next to exorcism.