California’s Senate Bill 1172 shall soon be on its way to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, where it will almost certainly become law. The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, bans the administering of “reparative therapy” to minors. That is, it prohibits parents from hiring psychiatrists, psychologists, or counselors to de-gay their butch little girls and effeminate little boys. The relevant text of the bill reads:
Under no circumstances shall a mental health provider engage in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age.
Any sexual orientation change efforts attempted on a patient under 18 years of age by a mental health provider shall be considered unprofessional conduct and shall subject a mental health provider to discipline by the licensing entity for that mental health provider.
SB 1172 was proposed earlier this year by state Sen. Ted Lieu, after Lieu saw a CNN series on reparative therapy. (Which, incidentally, my partner and I helped produce.) The series, called The Sissy Boy Experiments, centered on a young boy who became a sort of proof-of-concept for the de-gaying industry in the 1970s, when his allegedly effeminate behaviors were successfully curtailed by a regiment of counseling and increasingly brutal martial punishment. The boy’s name was omitted from the clinical reports, and as recently as 2009 his case was being touted as evidence that incipient gayness may be short-circuited in very young children — even though the boy, Kirk Murphy, grew up to be a very troubled gay man, and hanged himself in 2003. Because his name was concealed in the scientific literature, he probably never knew that children across the United States were being “treated” on the strength of his example.
This is horrifying stuff, and Sen. Ted Lieu was horrified. There is, in fact, no evidence that reparative therapy works on minors or anyone else. (Though some adult gays may become celibate, and some bisexuals, post-therapy, may choose to concentrate their attentions on the other sex.) And even if reparative therapy did work, Lieu knew, there would be no reason to force a minor into it.
The opponents of SB 1172 disagree with both points, but especially the latter. As the president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Dr. Christopher H. Rosik, put it:
NARTH finds particularly egregious the complete ban SB 1172 would place on the availability of SOCE [sexual orientation change efforts] and the accompanying restrictions on parental rights.
Dr. Rosik says a lot more, but the nut of his disagreement with the California legislature is contained in that sentence. If you were to ask them, I’m sure no member of the legislature would say he or she wishes to “restrict” parental rights. Parents, as far as California’s concerned, may get as thoroughly de-gayed as they like. Only children’s rights are at issue.
But Sen. Lieu and his fellow legislators have a curious vision of children’s rights. According to them, children have the right to keep from sitting in an antiseptic office with a soft-spoken therapist who would, in the gentlest and sunniest possible way, talk to them about cultivating their attractions to the other gender. But there is no corresponding right of children to be free of their parents’ churches — places where preachers full of holy fury may perform exorcisms, speak in tongues, describe homosexuality as a literally demonic affliction, and threaten them with an eternity of torment in a lake of fire.
With such a church in mind, read the portion of the bill in which Sen. Lieu explains the dangers of reparative therapy:
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. Many patients who have undergone reparative therapy relate that they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction. The possibility that the person might achieve happiness and satisfying interpersonal relationships as a gay man or lesbian is not presented, nor are alternative approaches to dealing with the effects of societal stigmatization discussed.
Replace the words “reparative therapy” with “angry protestant church services,” and “undergone” with “attended,” and doesn’t the above paragraph become vastly more true? (Doesn’t it, in fact, rather understate the truth? The possible satisfactions of gay life don’t just go unmentioned in right-leaning churches; they are openly reviled as satanic.) Dr. Rosik, of NARTH, makes a similar point:
… it needs to be observed that the great majority of coercive experiences of minors purported to have occurred in SOCE … took place in religiously based programs with pastoral providers who do not fall under the jurisdiction of this bill.
Of course, any bill that did seek to limit children’s exposure to their parents’ hateful churches would run up against two centuries of assumptions about the meaning of the First Amendment, and of parenthood itself. It would force the question: Can raising a child in the faith of one’s parents constitute child abuse?
This is a dangerous question. Even the most militant of the so-called “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have asked it only in passing, and nobody else asks it at all. Americans regularly witness the spectacle of the Westboro Baptist Church trotting their pre-adolescent children to protests around the country — protests generally conducted at the funerals of fallen soldiers or civil rights leaders — where they wave signs bearing slogans such as “GOD HATES FAGS” and “AIDS CURES FAGS” and “FAG SOLDIER IN HELL” — and although some of these children may be incipient gays, and although all of them, by dint of their upbringing in the church, are likely to spend their lives shunned and hated by the rest of society, there has been no effort to legally classify their rearing and indoctrination as abuse. There is, I think, a recognition that doing so would set the country on a slippery slope. If the Westboroans practice child abuse, what about sects who preach less impolite versions of the same message? And what about the Catholic Church? I was raised in it, and even though my pastor never spoke about damnation, and even though I suspect, looking back, that my parochial school’s religion teacher was a lesbian, I still absorbed the church’s anti-gay gestalt. It took a decade for me to overcome the resulting shame and guilt and become a happy young gay man. Was I abused?
If that question should become a legal one, the resulting fight will almost certainly be the ugliest-yet episode in America’s ongoing culture war. On one side: millions of well-meaning moms and dads who will go to bed conservatives, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and wake up recast as unfit parents, abusers, and criminals. On the other: generations of theoretical children who, like all children, will be born irreligious, but may find themselves press-ganged into a culture that will shame them, and sometimes maim them. Those who’ve thought this through must hope that America’s increasingly secular culture will prevail over our vestigial religiosity before the battle is well and truly joined.