Many have asked what I think about California State Senator Ted Lieu’s proposed legislation (SB 1172) to criminalize psychotherapists who offer Reparative or Conversion Therapy (RT) for LGBT+/SSA minors. This is an extremely complex issue. Here are just a few thoughts.
(1) I share Senator Lieu’s concern that over-promising change leads many LGBT+/SSA teens to lose hope, feel condemned and fear their future. Adding family and religious pressure to the stresses gay teens already carry can elevate self-hatred and suicide to very dangerous levels. This reality cannot be ignored.
(2) I share parents’ concerns about losing the right to obtain what they perceive to be needed psychological care for their children. However, uneducated parents flocking to RT experts can increase suicidality in their children. There is just too much false thinking that change is only a simple step away. The expectation for teens to experience change can really destroy a young person if and when they do not experience change.
For this reason, my first step as a parent would not be to seek RT. I prefer that parents seek “family counseling” that nourishes teens’ sense of acceptance and identifies other suicidal risk factors in their lives. This can lead to family-wide support that reduces suicidality freeing up emotional and mental energy that teens need to do well in school and internalize a sense of personal value as our children – and as children of God. These are top priorities.
(3) Without intending to criticize the prospects for “change” via RT in some individuals, the widespread misinterpretation and misuse of RT data has created an atmosphere where easy cliches and false promises nearly guarantee that “those who want to change can change.” Change can happen, but it is not always as complete as what many in the evangelical and ex-gay communities suggest.
Nearly all males that I encounter who report some degree of “change” continue to experience SSA. Many report that these temptations are quite strong and represent a significant stress in their lives. Others report that SSA no longer depresses or defines or holds them back from moving forward in life. Some who report an easing of SSA desires in one season of life find that strong SSA desires later return. And vice versa.
I often say: “I’m changed and not changed.” I am changed because Jesus has re-defined what SSA desires mean to me. They no longer mean that I must be a gay man. My identity has been transcended by a deeper reality that I am in-Christ. The trouble is that some evangelicals will take that testimony and celebrate it as healing. Overlooked is the reality that continuing SSA desires can be strong and frustrating to deal with. God can help, but His help does not always mean the absence of suffering. This is simply to say that “change” is a highly complex topic that is rarely accurately captured in media, political or religious soundbites.
Despite concerns about widespread use of RT, there are other considerations.
(4) I do not believe that politics or the law are proper venues to resolve risks associated with RT. That said, it may be religious leaders’ over-reliance on healing claims by select RT recipients that drive politicians to protect others who have been harmed when healing never materialized for them. We must avoid culture war determinism in order to understand RT in light of actual research. What we find in research is highly conflicting data about its’ effectiveness (in many areas – not just sexual orientation).
(5) I meet many people with SSA who experience my “clarified definition of change” (described above) without ever seeking RT. They experience increased “freedom” via their faith and enhanced support from family and their faith community. Many find this incremental freedom (not total freedom) through recovery ministries and Christian counseling. Despite accommodations for clergy drafted into SB1172, I remain concerned that the prohibition of RT might one day be used as a precedent to criminalize any therapeutic setting in which freedom or change in unwanted same-sex desires is experienced by a minor.
For example, my ministry offers what I refer to as “Relational Orientation Counseling.” The goal is to maximize family connectedness, so that unconditional acceptance and love can be internalized in the hearts of LGBT+/SSA teens who often acculturate into an identity based upon trauma from repeated acts of teasing, bullying, exclusion and statements of religious condemnation (from inside and/or outside the family). This form of counseling is not RT. My goal is not a change in sexual orientation but rather a dramatic enhancement in the “relational orientation” within a family. I would never want the legal prohibition against RT to be misapplied to pastoral care settings such as spiritual counseling and recovery ministries.
(6) Some teens lack gay identity but still experience SSA – typically, the lack of gay identity is rooted in SSA desires that occur without any romantic inclination. Such persons make up about 30% of young people who contact me. They are not traumatized by “their” voluntary efforts to gain relief from unwanted SSA. Even if they do not experience change, counseling often enhances their lives. Some claim that RT has actually eliminated SSA desires – usually in cases involving sexual abuse. I am not an activist for RT as you can see, but I never want to ignore the potential benefit for select individuals.
Most critical, then, is individual assessment versus universal application or prohibition. This posture avoids agenda – on either side – from limiting what is best for each person.
To wrap up, I fully agree with the concerns expressed by Senator Lieu, psychologists and many LGBT+ people. Wounds resulting from unwanted RT must not be denied or minimized. The application of RT must be carefully assessed on an individual basis. Those who can benefit should not be denied treatment. No teen should ever be forced by religious parents into such care. Additional medical ethic guidelines can offer enhanced screenings that avoid harm to minors – specifically over-representation of therapeutic effectiveness.
While some evangelicals will categorize Senator Lieu’s legal efforts as extremist gay activism, I might point out that voices within our own community also play into an opposite – and extremist – form of anti-gay activism. We will be better served by listening to and validating the real concerns about RT. This cannot be about agenda – it has to be about what is right for each individual…and making accurate disclosures regarding the effectiveness of RT.
Post Note: I highly respect Dr. Warren Throckmorton’s approach to nearly every aspect of homosexuality – including his views on RT. You can learn more about his views here.
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