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RGOD2: Relegating “ex-gay” therapy “to the dustbin of quackery”

California Gov. Jerry Brown made such a delicious comment -- “to the dustbin of quackery” -- when he signed Senate Bill 1172 (limiting sexual orientation conversion treatment for minors) into law on Sept. 29. Effective Jan. 1, California will become the first state to ban “ex-gay” therapy for minors with moves in New Jersey to follow suit.

Immediately, the Religious Right fought back with legal threats to repeal the law as unconstitutional while others claimed the bill was the work of Satan. Fox News was so troubled that it failed to report the law at all!

The religious magazine Charisma’s news editor, Jennifer LeClaire, believes that California may soon decide to “outlaw the Bible” as a next step. LeClaire claimed that homosexuality is caused by demonic “spirit of immorality” that “enters in through some sort of abuse and the lies of the enemy,” Satan. “Sexual orientation change efforts can help set the captives free,” LeClaire said. “That’s why the enemy saw to it that California, a state with a high gay population rate, bans such therapy.” PLLLLLEASE!

We have come a long way

We have come a long way from March 2010, when a handful of us protested an “ex-gay” therapy conference at Skyline Church in eastern San Diego and held an alternative conference at St. Paul’s Cathedral where some of the actual founders of the “ex-gay” movement, like Michael Bussee, shared their stories on how they are repairing the damage done by decades of well-intentioned Christians against LGBT fellow congregants.

I vividly remember watching families arriving by cars to Skyline Church and gazing at the gays on their doorstep. As one car passed, we looked into the sad eyes of a young teenager in the back seat who was surprised to see a guy in a clerical collar protesting the conference he was about to be subjected to. If our little protest had any significant outcome – if we had convinced one person or one family that there was an alternative to the quackery that Skyline was organizing that day, it was surely worth it.

I personally called pastor Jim Garlow to tell him that a few of us would be coming over to express our concern and protest what he was supporting. Somehow, word reached the local police force that bus loads of gays from Hillcrest would be arriving on Skyline’s campus, which was hurriedly sealed off with the place swarming with police vehicles and uniforms. There were only three of us and it was an incredible waste of taxpayer funds to have dozens of police there that morning. The fear and threat tactics used by my brothers and sisters in Christ still surprises me. Skyline misinformed the local police that day as much as they misinformed the kid I saw in the back of his anxious parent’s car.

Now, Garlow wants to join the move by California pastors to repeal the law on the grounds of freedom of religious expression while the anti-gay Liberty Counsel opposes the law on the basis that it denies parents the right to choose treatment and care for their children.

“The California governor and legislature are putting their own preconceived notions and political ideology ahead of children and their rights to get access to counseling that meets their needs,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“A number of minors who have struggled with same-sex attraction have been able to reduce or eliminate the stress and conflicts in their lives by receiving counseling of their choice which best meets their needs and religious convictions. This bill will harm children, stress families, and place counselors in a catch-22, because they will be forced to violate their licensing ethical codes,” said Staver.

To Garlow and Staffer I say, “Now you will have your day in court.” Under oath, both men and other witnesses will have to prove that “ex-gay” therapy actually works. I look forward to hearing their arguments and assume they will have the same intellectually stimulating gems of wisdom that their colleagues brought to the marriage debate in California’s courts. To Garlow, I would also ask a simple and honest question: “Would you really want your daughter to marry a graduate of this program?”

The reality show

In the past two years, we have seen a number of leaders in this “ex-gay” movement admit that it has limited or no effect on the vast majority of its victims, and the scientific evidence is growing that this dangerous area of pastoral care and psychological counseling needs more regulation and attention.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association produced a well-researched report into “Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) concluded:

“That efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of SOCE practitioners and advocates. Even though the research and clinical literature demonstrate that same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviors are normal and positive variations of human sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation identity, the task force concluded that the population that undergoes SOCE tends to have strongly conservative religious views that lead them to seek to change their sexual orientation. Thus, the appropriate application of affirmative therapeutic interventions for those who seek SOCE involves therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients and the facilitation of clients’ active coping, social support, and identity exploration and development, without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome.” The report debunks all their so called scientific theory:

“None of the recent research (1999–2007) meets methodological standards that permit conclusions regarding efficacy or safety. The few high-quality studies of SOCE conducted recently are qualitative (e.g.,Beckstead & Morrow, 2004; Ponticelli, 1999; Wolkomir,2001) and aid in an understanding of the population that undergoes sexual orientation change but do not provide the kind of information needed for definitive answers to questions of safety and efficacy. Given the limited amount of methodologically sound research, claims that recent SOCE is effective are not supported.”

The report was an excellent contribution to a contemporary debate and it also was charged to look at SOCE for adolescents and religious people. Again their conclusions were clear and consistent:

“The limited published literature on these programs suggests that many do not present accurate scientific information regarding same sex sexual orientations to youths and families, are excessively fear-based, and have the potential to increase sexual stigma. These efforts pose challenges to best clinical practices and professional ethics, as they potentially violate current practice guidelines by not providing treatment in the least-restrictive setting possible, by not protecting client autonomy, and by ignoring current scientific information on sexual orientation.”

Many religious individuals’ desired to live their lives in a manner consistent with their values (telic congruence); however, telic congruence based on stigma and shame is unlikely to result in psychological well-being. Programs sponsored by religious groups, such as Love in Action’s program, Refuge, provide religiously based interventions that claim to change sexual orientation, control sexual behavior, or prevent the development of same-sex sexual orientation. The interventions have been marketed to parents in this way (Burack & Josephson, 2005; Sanchez, 2007; Williams, 2005). Because they are religious in nature and are not explicitly mental health facilities, many of these programs are not licensed or regulated by state authorities. Burack and Josephson reported that there was effort by religious organizations and sponsors of these programs to communicate to parents that homosexuality is abnormal and sinful and could be changed. Such religious organizations, according to the authors of the report, encouraged parents to seek treatment for their children. Based on anecdotal accounts of current and past residents, these programs, to influence adolescents’ life decisions, allegedly used fear and even threats about negative spiritual, health, and life consequences and thus are viewed as coercive (Burack & Josephson, 2005; Sanchez, 2007).

In conclusion: The APA concludes that psychology must rely on proven methods of scientific inquiry based on empirical data, on which hypotheses and propositions are confirmed or disconfirmed, as the basis to explore and understand human behavior (APA, 2008a; 2008c).”

The case for Religious Science

The closest comparison to “ex-gay” therapy and religious freedom of expression is to be found in seminal court cases where Religious Science practitioners have been challenged by the courts when they refuse medical treatment for their children or their dependents. In many cases, this religious belief system that prefers “faith healing” over modern medicine has resulted in loss of life or putting someone unnecessarily in harm’s way.

In Europe, the courts have been much stricter in protecting the rights of minors and their right to access to medical treatment over the wishes of their parents and churches than in the USA, where it is often left up to individual states to decide on these controversial issues. These churches have grown powerful lobby groups that are skillful in using freedom of religious expression argument to deny children access to treatment or for the state to hold parents accountable for what can only be described as child abuse and parental neglect. There is a good backgrounder on this comparison HERE.

The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is a similar lobby organization whose mission is to “uphold the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care.” Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence presented by the APA and other respected professional bodies, NARTH reacted to the recent law:

“Anecdotal stories of harm are no basis from which to ban an entire form of psychological care. If they were, the psychological professions would be completely out of business. We fully anticipate that activist groups like Equality California will be back next year to see what further erosions of parental rights and professional judgment politicians and mental health associations will authorize in California and other states. Counselors adhering to traditional values cannot be blamed for wondering what other practices disliked by these activists are going to be targeted as “unprofessional conduct” in the future, particularly in states that have legalized same-sex marriage.”

God loves me and she knows I am gay!

I am glad to know a number of faith communities in San Diego that differ in their polity and theology from Skyline Church. We now have places where you can believe in God and believe that maybe God made LGBT people to be just the way we are. We can also believe in dinosaurs and believe the world is more than 5,000 years old. We don’t have to park our brains at the church porch and are encouraged to use the empirical scientific process and modern medicine and human psychology to figure out many of life’s mysteries and challenges.

Carlos Maza recently went undercover to attend one of pastor Garlow’s conferences on LGBT issues and it is an interesting read into how many Americans who attend these mega churches still see us.

As long as churches continue to deliberately misinform, create fear and dehumanization to pit one section of the human family against another, we will rely more and more on the courts to decide which information is right and what is harmful.

Working as I do with countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT, I have seen the damage this misinformation creates to deny people their citizenship and withdraw access to civil protection and even health care. Often, anti-gay laws are promoted because of the belief that LGBT people can be changed to heterosexuals. This misinformation war is unfortunately led by religious leaders. Many fine, upstanding clerics still believe this, including pastor Rick Warren, and when he spreads his beliefs to other continents, millions of people get hurt.

I am proud of my legislature in California for leaning into the fierce winds of this controversial issue. It is clearly not over yet and will follow this important battle into the courts. We have come a long, long way in two years from a little protest at Skyline. But I cannot erase the memory of that little face that was staring out from the back seat of his parent’s car! Today, that young man may still have to deal with his parent’s shame and the stigma of being gay projected from his faith community, but he now has rights and choices he did not have before Governor Brown used his dustbin.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.