Though the American Psychiatric Association first removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, a backlash forced a delay until 1986. Until then, it was accepted for gays to go through forced lobotomies and other tortures to try to ‘cure’ them of the supposed mental disorder. Anti-Gay Inc. freaked out over the APA’s decision, eventually creating the concept that homosexuality was a sinful choice that led to addiction—that could be cured or arrested through lots of prayer and behavioral modification.
"What we're concerned about is that homosexuals are in a traumatized condition and they need help," anti-gay Traditional Values Rev. Lou Sheldon told the Los Angeles Times in December 1989. "We're not anti-gay. ... It's very important that we love them as individuals. We know they need a lot of help.” Sheldon said that treating gays was like helping alcoholics overcome their addictions and “compulsive behavior."
But in late 1991, 15-year-old lesbian Lyn Duff discovered that “reparative therapy” was far from the passive talk therapy of AA or other addiction recovery programs. It was still torture. Duff’s mother whisked her off to Rivendell Psychiatric Center in West Jordan, Utah, where her “conversion” process entailed constant religious battery by Mormon missionaries and aversion therapy that included being forced to watch gay pornography while smelling ammonia, hypnosis, mind-altering drugs and solitary confinement, as well as forcing her to wear dresses and put up with belittling peer pressure. After 168 days of hell, Duff escaped and fled to San Francisco, where she got help from law student Shannon Minter, who worked on her case with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among other groups.
“It was so terrifying. I didn’t realize that was still going on,” Minter, now NCLR’s Legal Director, told Frontiers. “I got so involved in tracking down other kids who had been in that same institution where she was—and I ended up talking to about a dozen of them who had been through this treatment. And I just saw firsthand how devastated they were. And several of them did not make it. Several of them ended up dying by suicide.”
That case inspired Minter to get involved in the LGBT legal movement—and also introduced her to Kate Kendell, now NCLR’s executive director, who was then at the ACLU in Utah helping attorneys investigate Rivendell.
Fast forward to 2012, and Minter and Kendell are fighting to save SB 1172, a bill authored by California State Sen. Ted Lieu that would prevent licensed mental health professionals from trying to change minors’ sexual orientation or gender expression through practices deemed to be dangerous junk science. “Clearly, so-called conversion or reparative therapy is scientifically ineffective and has resulted in much harm,” Lieu said. “Simply put, this is an unacceptable therapeutic practice.”
After contentious hearings during which Anti-Gay Inc. claimed parental rights were being quashed by government, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill on Sept. 30. "This bill bans non-scientific 'therapies' that have driven young people to depression and suicide,'' Brown said. "These practices have no basis in science or medicine, and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery."
On Oct. 4, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, NARTH, and Liberty Counsel filed a federal challenge to the new law—which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. It is the second federal challenge. On Oct. 20, NCLR and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson filed a motion seeking to intervene on behalf of bill co-sponsor Equality California, asking the Sacramento court to allow them to defend SB 1172 alongside California Attorney General Kamala Harris (see their motion at tinyurl.com/9qez5sh).
“These lawsuits do not have any legal merit at all. So I’m confident that this law is going to be upheld, but we have to take them seriously,” Minter said. He explained that the courts have never seen a law like this and might have a misconception that the law is a challenge to the beliefs therapists hold about sexual orientation.
“NARTH and Liberty Counsel want it to be about beliefs and ideology. They’re presenting this as the state trying to suppress their point of view,” Minter said. “We want to make sure the court understands it has nothing to do with that. This is about stopping therapists who are licensed by the state of California from engaging in practices that every leading mental health organization in the country has recognized are not only ineffective but actually put young people at risk of very serious harm, including death by suicide.”
The practices also mislead and bilk parents who don’t realize the harm done to their children. “And there is no end to it,” Minter said. “It’s based on these false narratives that kind of ‘explain’ their failure to ‘cure’ you so that you have to keep coming back and paying more money.”
It is scary to realize that until SB 1172, state licensing boards had no law empowering them to take action against state-licensed therapists who engage in quackery.