When considering California’s Senate Bill 1172, which, if passed and signed into law, would prohibit counselors from subjecting minors to “all sex orientation change,” it’s important not to see it purely as a campaign in the ongoing culture wars. It fits into another context, namely, a growing popular suspicion of mental-health quackery, particularly where the patients are children. In 2010, Florida banned the use of minors in state custody for clinical drug trials. Last year, Ron Paul re-introduced the Parental Consent Act, which would eliminate federal funding for any mandatory or universal psychiatric screening of children.
More than ever before, so-called reparative therapy is looking like quackery, or at least like the product of wishful thinking. This past May, Robert Spitzer, the well-respected psychiatrist whose 2001 study, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, made sexual orientation appear changeable, denounced the methodology that had led him to that conclusion. Arthur Abba Goldberg, executive secretary for National Association for Resarch and Therapy of Homosexuality, was found to have served 18 months for mail fraud and been disbarred from practicing law in New Jersey. In 2009, following a two-year review of all the literature, the American Psychological Association concluded it offered no evidence of gay-to-straight therapy’s effectiveness. Worse, it suggested that its emphasis on “the psychopathology of homosexuality” could lead patients to grow depressed or suicidal.
But despite this common aversion to snake oil and its peddlers, SB 1172 and the Parental Consent Act differ drastically in one key respect. The Parental Consent Act aims at giving parents more control over their children’s mental health. (If its official title isn’t explicit enough on that point, consider its unofficial title, the Raise Your Own Kids Act.) SB 1172 aims at disempowering parents from making those decisions — or at least one such decision. If the restriction isn’t singular, it’s at least highly unusual. Where their kids’ welfare is concerned, parents typically — and rightly — enjoy a wide margin for error. Even in California, they retain the right to send their kids to boot camps or fat camps, or to medicate them according to their doctors’ orders.
Without positing any vast conspiracies, it’s pretty clear that the passage of the bill would give aid and comfort to people who would push expressing any negative attitude toward homosexuality beyond the pale of civilized behavior. In Slate, Emily Yoffe, who writes the advice column “Dear Prudence,” demonstrates this mindset as flippantly, even as cruelly, as anyone ever could. Responding to a letter from a woman whose ex-husband demanded she correct the swishy hand gestures of their five-year-old son, in the belief it might keep the boy from growing up gay, Yoffe had this to say:
It’s no mystery why this monster is your ex. How you got together with him in the first place is a separate question. I have the feeling that one of these days your former husband is going to be picked up by the vice squad in a public men’s room for taking too wide a stance. This guy sounds completely unhinged…you need to obviously limit contact with him…He certainly sounds like an unfit father.
In fairness to Yoffe, her reader also mentioned her ex was upset that her gay OB-GYN had been the first to touch the boy — apparently, he thinks gayness is transmissible through skin contact. On this subject, he sounds like an imbecile — a curiously obsessive imbecile. But to call him a monster? To judge that this moral blind spot completely unsuits him for parenthood? To doubt that he could have any attractive or redeeming qualities whatsoever? That all speaks to the kind of rigidity only a fundamentalist could love.
Or maybe “militant” is a better word. In Religion Dispatches, Elizabeth Drescher writes for people whose committment to the struggle for gay rights precludes recognizing any fine distinctions among members of the opposing camp. On one level, she does acknowledge that few “Chick-fil-A” Christians actually hate gays and lesbians, or would speak of them in demeaning language. However, concludes Drescher, even these relative moderates participate in “a rhetorical system that demeans and demonizes lesbians and gays to the extent that it creates a general fear among some self-identified heterosexuals that a nefarious ‘gay agenda’ is afoot that will somehow undermine heterosexual relationships, families, and society in general.” In her eyes, if you’re not part of the solution, which necessarily includes marriage equality, you’re part of the problem.
When it comes to securing civil liberties, Drescher’s got a point. LGBT people have gotten a raw deal from even the mildest-spoken Christians. In 1992, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Fath released a document that began by condemning homophobic attacks “in word and deed,” but went on to condemn laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Among its reasons, the CDF includes the possibility that anti-discrimination laws “could actually encourage a person with a homosexual orientation to declare his homosexuality or even to seek a partner in order to exploit the provisions of the law.” This sense of “give ‘em a finger, the’ll eat your hand off” rarely shows up in official Church materials, at least not in so raw a form. I wouldn’t blame Drescher for thinking, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
But now that the pendulum is swinging in favor of recognizing LGBT rights, Christianity must adjust. It’s already given signs of being able to do so without compromising the fundamentals of its teachings. Monsignor Timothy Broglio, Archbishop for Military Services, has admitted that the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has presented the armed forces with “no overt difficulties.” This past spring, the religious magazine First Things published an essay in which Joshua Gonnerman calls out Christianity for participating in the very rhetorical structure that so gets Drescher’s goat. “The all-encompassing rhetorical tool of the [LGBT] ‘lifestyle’ is used to reduce the entire identity of gay people to sexual activity, and thus our response to all concerns of gay people becomes an automatic ‘no.’” Instead, Gonnermann recommends, the Church should be willing to “live as family” with gays and lesbians who feel the call to conversion. Though the family metaphor has been deployed to justify all sorts of overbearing and meddling behavior, it’s clear Gonnerman doesn’t mean it that way.
Granted, these are small signs. A PhD candidate in theology, Gonnerman’s not a heavy hitter — yet. But the fact that his essay appeared in First Things, whose editorial slant is about as liberal as the Divine Right of Kings, suggests his voice isn’t quite alone in the wilderness. Thanks to these signs of new openness to the lived experience of gays and lesbians, I would like to see the discrediting of reparative therapy remain a challenge for the mental health and faith communities to tackle on their own. Most likely, our victory will be other than absolute. Like the poor, people who believe a certain kind of therapy can re-orient their sexuality, or their kids’, will always be with us. But over time, I believe, as data accumulate, their numbers will decrease to the point where legislative impositions look like exactly what they are — overkill, not to mention support for a rhetorical structure that makes Christianity into a religion of haters.