This article, originally published by Al Zucaro on BocaWatch.org, is preserved for historical purposes by Massive Impressions Online Marketing in Boca Raton.
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Recently, Boca Raton was hit with a lawsuit because of its adoption of an ordinance that banned the practice of conversion therapy within the city. Although those who support conversion therapy will present the issue as an ongoing, science-based debate, this portrayal could not be further from the truth or reality. As reviewed below, there is absolutely no body of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of these practices, and worse, it is likely they do incredible harm to those subjected, especially children (1). Supporters of conversion therapy will tell you that this is a First Amendment issue and that the practice is ultimately in defense of children. However, I will argue instead that supporters of conversion therapy do not care about children, but rather care about erasing anyone and anything that does not fit in their provincial worldview; they work not to protect children but to manipulate them and the broader public debate.
Let us begin by making one thing very clear: the debate over conversion therapy is not clinical but cultural. There is a reason that the only organizations that support conversion therapy are religiously based – there are no credible, scientifically based organizations that support it. Within the social and clinical sciences, this issue is analogous to global warming. While you can always find the one or two charlatans willing to deny the obvious, the vast majority of the field(s) is in consensus that conversion therapy is empirically and ethically problematic. More than a dozen national and professional organizations have denounced the practice (2). For example (full quotes available at the link below):
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “Based on the scientific evidence, the AACAP asserts that such “conversion therapies” lack scientific credibility and clinical utility. Additionally, there is evidence that such interventions are harmful.”
- American Counseling Association: “The belief that same-sex attraction and behavior is abnormal and in need of treatment is in opposition to the position taken by national mental health organizations, including ACA.”
- American Medical Association: “Our AMA: (c) opposes the use of ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.”
- American Psychiatric Association: “Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable. The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
- American Psychoanalytic Association: “Psychoanalytic technique does not encompass purposeful attempts to ‘convert,’ “repair,” change or shift an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Such directed efforts are against fundamental principles of psychoanalytic treatment and often result in substantial psychological pain by reinforcing damaging internalized attitudes.”
- American Psychological Association: “Be it further resolved that the APA concludes that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation; Be it further resolved that the APA advises 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.”
Hiding behind the façade of their titles, these pseudoscientists and doctors can do incredible harm and perpetuate religiously based mythologies about the supposed pathology of being gay. 150 years ago, “scientists” used to measure lumps on people’s heads to determine their social characteristics – a ridiculous a long debunked practice called Phrenology. Conversion “therapists” are the Phrenologists of the 21st century. Calling conversion therapy “junk science” still gives it too much credit. Let us take a case example. A commonly cited study by supporters of conversion therapy is found in the work of Robert Spitzer, MD, who in 2003 published a “study” of 200 individuals having claimed to change their sexual orientation. Published without peer review, and following extensive criticism from experts, Dr. Spitzer himself negated the findings and issued an apology to both the scientific and gay communities some number of years later (3).
Having established the lack of scientific merit for conversion therapy, one must ask what the project of conversion therapy is really about. Some supporters will argue this is a First Amendment and freedom of speech issue. It seems especially ironic that a group of people apparently obsessed with notions of “liberty” cannot figure out how to get out of people’s pants. But if you really think this is a free speech issue, then consider these ordinances as time, place, and manner restrictions. You can still be hateful and terrible on your own time, but you must leave children out of it because the government has an express interest in protecting them as a vulnerable population. Further, there is absolutely nothing you can tell me to convince me that using “State’s Rights” to justify this is anything other than a politically expedient way to say, “gay people scare me but I know it is unpopular to say that.”
Going beyond medical efficacy and free speech, I am going to call this lawsuit out for what is it: an attempt to sow and perpetuate bigotry using the rhetoric of law, science, and medicine as a deceptive cloak. Rather than take the time to listen to and interact with someone who is different in an attempt to understand them, supporters of conversion therapy would rather devote their time and energy toward trying to change a fundamental part of someone else’s personhood. I can think of a lot of things to judge people about: narcissism, greed, envy, gluttony – things in no short supply here in South Florida – but being gay is not one of them. Perhaps supporters of conversion therapy should seek out their own help to better understand where their unsubstantiated prejudices come from.
(1) Drescher, Jack. 2015. “Can Sexual Orientation By Changed?” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health 19:84-93. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19359705.2014.944460?journalCode=wglm20
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(2) Human Rights Campaign. 2018. “Policy and Position Statements on Conversion Therapy.” https://www.hrc.org/resources/policy-and-position-statements-on-conversion-therapy
(3) Carey, Benedict. 2012. “Psychiatry Giant Sorry For Backing Gay ‘Cure’” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/health/dr-robert-l-spitzer-noted-psychiatrist-apologizes-for-study-on-gay-cure.html