09/11/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

California May Ban Sexual Orientation Change Efforts for Youth

Last week the California Senate passed Senate Bill 1172 (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts), sending it to the desk of Governor Brown. The bill, sponsored by Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), would make California the first state to prohibit a mental health provider from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age.

Brown has not taken a position on the bill and can sign it, veto it, or allow its protections to take effect without his signature on January 1, 2013.

In 2009 the American Psychological Association (the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the United States) convened a Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. The goal was to conduct a systematic review of sexual orientation change efforts to finally be able to conclude its effectiveness and risks involved. The Task Force concluded that therapy to change sexual orientation does not work and can pose critical health risks to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, including confusion, depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, and substance abuse -- the list of harmful effects goes on.

As a result, the AMA issued a resolution "advising parents, guardians, young people, and their families to avoid sexual orientation change efforts that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder and to seek psychotherapy, social support, and educational services that provide accurate information on sexual orientation and sexuality, increase family and school support, and reduce rejection of sexual minority youth."

While the finding by the AMA Task Force advises against efforts to change sexual orientation, with no law making it illegal, psychologists can still provide the controversial therapy without being subject to discipline by the provider's licensing entity.

On behalf of New America Media, I interviewed James Guay, Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and member of the LGBTQ Psychotherapy Association, Gaylesta's Advocacy Committee working on S.B. 1172, on his experience with sexual orientation change efforts as well as his advocacy around the proposed bill.

What happened to bring about this proposed bill?

In June 2011 CNN's Anderson Cooper aired a three-part series, titled "The Sissy Boy Experiment," where they examined experimental therapy designed to make feminine boys more masculine. Senator Lieu saw the series and was compelled to action, working with Equality California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Gaylesta to write a piece of legislation aiming to ban therapies claiming to change one's sexual orientation.

What is your experience with sexual orientation change efforts?

I voluntarily tried changing my sexual orientation from age 12 until age 20, having been influenced by my fundamentalist Christian upbringing and being a preacher's son. As a shy 12-year-old I was so plagued with guilt and shame about my same-sex attractions that I went to the local neighborhood Christian bookstore and bought the only book I could find on homosexuality. I vividly remember the clerk asking if it was for me or for someone I knew. I sheepishly admitted that it was for me, and she said she would pray for me.

After four years of trying to change my sexual orientation through church attendance, prayer, religious counseling, and reading the Bible two times through with my family -- all to no avail -- I shared my internal struggle with my parents. The level of self-hatred I had developed in a hostile environment and for personalizing the Biblical message that I was "an abomination" to God fueled my zest to change my sexual orientation.

Finding a licensed psychologist who claimed to have changed his sexual orientation was enough for me to maintain the hope of change and dedicate my every waking moment to this cause. I worked with a psychologist, attended ex-gay conferences, and participated in religious ministries.

Eventually, I realized that despite my discipline and devotion, true internal change would never occur, even if I decided to be celibate for the rest of my life. I also realized that my ego and sense of self had been so obliterated by this approach that I was left to pick up the pieces with the help of truly affirmative psychotherapy for LGBT individuals. I had wasted my money and time on promises that never materialized and actually further isolated me from real connections with myself and others.

What do sexual orientation change efforts consist of?

There's plenty of treatment approaches, not just one, which is part of the problem. Whether is cognitive, behavioral, or psychological, the dynamics are all base on the paradigm that there is something to repair that's broken.

It's about helping people who voluntarily want to change, who may have a conflict between their religious beliefs and sexual orientation. A lot of people look to the newest approach, which can be very extreme.

Just recently, a doctor in Australia was banned from practicing medicine after prescribing a chemical castration drug to a teenager as a "gay cure."

Are those who have undergone this therapy more likely to have sought it voluntarily or at the behest of family?

Consent is a tricky issue on this one, because there is so much societal, familial, peer, and religious pressure to be straight, with all the privileges that come with that. Even when it's "voluntary," it's ineffective and likely harmful, and usually familial influences play a large part in the decision.

How prevalent is this practice?

I hope that it's dwindling, but I'm afraid there are still many misinformed parents and practitioners out there.

Why is there need for a bill to be passed on a state level?

In California there is not just one board for mental health practitioners. The Board of Behavioral Science governs over Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, while psychologists have their own governing body. This bill would allow boards to say, "This is part of our ethics," and if a case of malpractice is presented, they would be allowed to investigate.

Why is the bill only for minors?

The bill originally included all ages, but there was a lot of back and forth between mental health professional organizations and those proposing the bill regarding the implications of state legislation in health practice.

To come to an agreement, the original bill was pared down to specifically minors, because they are a more protected class and more vulnerable to this practice. It is important to protect youth from this form of psychological abuse.

What is the argument of those who oppose the bill?

When we initially introduced this bill, many were afraid that it would scare therapists from talking about sexual orientation at all with youth.

From a religious freedom standpoint, the argument I heard was that the bill was misappropriating social justice language to say that clients are being discriminated against.

There was also concern that with licensed healthcare professionals unable to offer sexual orientation change efforts, youth would be more likely to seek damaging religious counseling.

A lot of political forces want to use this as a platform to say that same-sex orientation is a learned phenomenon that can be changed, so that they can legitimize not giving human rights protections and privileges to this class of people.

If this bill passes, what would consequences for practitioners look like?

If a client goes to a board and complains about a therapist, there is an investigation to find out whether the accused therapist has done any wrongdoing. Depending on the severity, the board can decide to suspend their license, require continuing education and cultural competency, or, if the action is very egregious, they can decide to terminate the practitioner's license.

Do you think S.B. 1172 goes far enough?

I think it's a great start. Eventually I'd like to see this expanded to delegitimizing this practice among adults, too, as allowing licensed psychotherapist to practice this even with adults is unethical, and I believe it should be illegal because of its known harms.

What would you like to see happen in the future with regard to the mental well-being of LGBTQ youth?

I would like to see LGBT youth supported and embraced for all of who they are and their inherent value for society at large.