Controversial “gay conversion therapy” banned by Brown still causing dispute from supporter groups

Christina Cocca

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Jerome “Jerry” Reiter leans in to kiss his fiance, Ruben Valasquez, in front of the St. Thomas Aquinas Center for “gay curing” in Encino. Reiter spent more than 20 years in various conversion therapies since age 16. He said he entered the therapy in fear his parents would disapprove of his same-sex attraction. They are currently engaged and awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision to see the Proposition 8 case. Photo credit: Charlie Kaijo / Assistant Photo Editor

California will be the first state to outlaw a controversial form of psychotherapy that aims to convert minors from homosexuals to heterosexuals on Jan. 1, 2013.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a ban on gay conversion therapy Sept. 30, making the alleged psychotherapy that aims to convert minors from gay or lesbian to straight illegal.

The law, Senate Bill 1172, will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2013, and prohibits mental health providers from “engaging in sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) with a patient under 18 years of age.” SB 1172 states the “change efforts” pose over 23 critical health risks including thoughts of suicide, self-hatred, depression, emotional intimacy problems and sexual dysfunction, and adds that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is not a disease.

California Senator Ted W. Lieu (D- Torrance) proposed the bill to ban these practices, and said “even professionals agree that this quackery needs to stop” in a press release.

“It’s heartening to see the majority of the Assembly agrees that this kind of so-called ‘treatment’ essentially is psychological abuse of children,” Lieu said about SB 1172.

Experiencing the Therapy

Jerome Reiter, 55, spent more than 20 years in various conversion therapies since age 16. He said he entered the therapy in fear his parents would disapprove of his same-sex attraction during the time of the Stonewall riots.

“This conservative Christian psychologist told me to watch heterosexual porn, date more women, use more willpower to turn away from looking at men, and one priest told me if I married a woman, those feelings would go away,” said Reiter, a voice-over artist, writer and part-time minister in Los Angeles.

He was married for 26 years to a woman with whom he had two sons but divorced after he realized he needed emotional intimacy with another man.

“My wife was okay with it at first, but when our son who had epilepsy suddenly died at 26, she blamed me as if my being there would have saved him,” Reiter said. “The funeral was at a homophobic evangelical church that wouldn’t let me in to my own son’s funeral.”

He said he was destroyed by anger and sorrow until he had a dream in which his late son told him to “let go.”

“Reparative therapy teaches young people to be ashamed, deny actual feelings and holds a person who falls and repents after having anonymous same-sex sexual encounters as being more moral and godly than a person who marries and is monogamous for their entire life to one person who is of the same gender,” Reiter said. “I lost a friend who committed suicide because he couldn’t succeed in the therapy, and I don’t want to see other young people live in such pain.”

Equality California, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, asked CSUN students to sign postcards in support of the ban on SB 1172 during the campus’ opening of its new Pride Center.

EQCA sent over 8,000 postcards to Gov. Brown’s office to bring the issue to his attention, according to Nayeli Pelayo, an administrative associate for EQCA.

“We’re the first state in the nation to ban the therapy for minors, and the goal is to have it banned permanently for everybody,” said Pelayo, 24. “It’s a huge step in the right direction, and with this piece of legislation, banning it for everyone may be considered in the future.”

Sarina Loeb, Pride Center and LGBTQ Initiatives coordinator, said she thinks this kind of therapy is a reason for suicides in the LGBTQ community.

“By having reparative therapy, it gives the message that being gay is wrong and needs to be changed,” Loeb said. “It’s that mentality and discrimination that leads to such a high suicide rate among LGBTQs, so I am happy that the ban passed.”

Doug Riechel, a senior creative writing major, said the existence of therapy offends him as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“These therapists basically take advantage of any latent bisexuality someone might have and say, ‘You can be cured!’ which I find incredibly offensive as a bisexual man, because people are still pretending there is only gay and straight,” said Riechel, 22. “(Supporters think) if there’s a little bit of homosexuality, that must be cast out, and the hetereosexuality must be harvested and saved like it’s gold out of a mountain.”

Controversy Continues: Undoing the Ban

Although many people support Brown’s ban on conversion therapy, groups who promote rights to the therapy aim to prevent the ban from going into effect in January.

The Pacific Justice Institute, a legal group from Sacramento who defends “religious freedom, parental rights and other civil liberties,” already filed suit against SB 1172.

According to a press release by PJI, they plan to seek an injunction to prevent Brown’s ban on what they call “reparative therapy” from going into effect next year.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, said the ban was an “egregious violation of fundamental rights” of minors who are “struggling with same-sex attraction.”

“The legislature is the epitome of psychiatric ignorance coupled with legislative negligence, and the reason is because it presupposes that everyone who has same-sex attraction is 100 percent because of DNA and genetics, which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Dacus said.

He added that the reparative therapy violates the freedoms of those who have a religious background and will be forced to choose a counselor that may challenge their religious beliefs.

“This ban also risks children being taken wrongfully by parents who have beliefs in traditional heterosexual relationships, and if parents aren’t embracing of same-sex attraction, that may be grounds for state intervention and potential of permanent removal of the child from the family,” Dacus said. “This is outside the boundaries of what PJI believes is constitutional and would allow for government involvement of issues of family life.”

Therapy As Child Abuse

James Guay, 41, testified in the assembly hearing to get the bill to Brown and heard PJI’s testimony.

“People who don’t want this ban to come to fruition use parental rights and religious freedom as their argument,” said Guay, who tried conversion therapy when he was a teenager. “The state has an interest in making sure parents don’t abuse their children; this isn’t about legislature and psychotherapy, it’s about preventing child abuse.”

He said he internalized a tremendous amount of religious, familial and societal pressure as an adolescent and tried to change his sexual orientation from age 12 to 20.

“I was brought up to believe I was going to hell, so these Christian psychologists had me attending church sermons, reading the Bible and trying to pray it away, which obviously didn’t work,” Guay said.

Now a psychotherapist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, Guay said the results of undergoing conversion therapy are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“People who have done this have physical, emotional and psychological shame-based trauma, and all legitimate medical and mental health professionals say it’s incredibly harmful and ineffective,” Guay said. “The message (conversion therapy) gives you is that if it’s not working, you’re not motivated enough, you’re not giving it enough time, and there is always something problematic about you.”

Jane Wishon, a Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) board member, said even as a practicing Christian and parent of children who identify as straight, she would never subject her children to undergo conversion therapy.

MEUSA is an all-volunteer grassroots-based national organization with the mission to gain marriage equality for all people “without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“I cannot comprehend a universe where I would send my child to the conversion program,” said Wishon, 57.  “That’s not the way I read the Bible, and I believe God makes people the way they are.”

Conversion Therapy in the Valley

Even with hopeful outlooks like Wishon’s and the potential for a statewide ban, organizations that offer the therapy are still permitted to operate until the new year.

The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is a nonprofit organization based out of Encino, Calif., that offers conversion therapy and will fight to overturn the ban on SB 1172.

“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,” NARTH president Christopher Rosik said in a statement.

David Pickup, a spokesperson and therapist at NARTH, went through reparative therapy from age 30 to 45 and said he was a “heterosexual with homosexual issues,” and knew his homosexuality was a matter of “cause and effect.”

“This is a journey I am still happily on, and my heterosexuality has increased 100 percent without really any struggles right now,” said Pickup, 56. “Contrary to popular belief, we do not coerce people or make them change if they say they are happy being gay and do not want to change.”

Pickup said clients of NARTH experience lowered depression and anxiety and dissipation of homosexual feelings. He could not provide a success rate for NARTH’s therapy and said very few therapists can ever give accurate percentages of success rates.

“This bill is so generalized, it will actually cause furtherance of child abuse for this specific population,” Pickup said regarding the bill’s attempt to prevent child abuse.

“Every good therapist knows that homosexual feelings frequently arise out of sexual molestation and rape, just look at the Sandusky case,” Pickup said. “This law says that if I am a boy under 18 who gets sexually abused, I can’t seek help anywhere and I am stranded because the therapy will be outlawed.”

Pickup could not provide data regarding how many people who are sexually abused become homosexuals, and said homosexuals who were not sexually abused must have experienced a lack of affection or unmet emotional needs between age two and six.

Other research suggests a person’s sexual orientation is dependent upon prenatal brain development.

Studies done by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest sexual differentiation is developed in the brain during fetal and neonatal development, which programs gender identity. One study indicated “sex-differentiated activation of the anterior hypothalamus in heterosexual men and women,” and a reversed pattern of activation in homosexual men and women.

Another study done by PNAS indicated gay men and heterosexual women shared brain matter similarities as well as lesbian women to heterosexual men.

Reiter, who underwent the controversial therapy, quoted some of the “gay brain studies” as evidence for those who try to explain homosexuality as an outcome of sexual abuse. He offered a statement to anyone who is considering reparative therapy.

“The ‘gay-curing’ reparative therapists can teach you to be ashamed of yourself and convince you that you are broken, but they can’t make you heterosexual,” Reiter said. “I would tell parents it’s not reparative, because they aren’t broken. Being homosexual is just part of who they are.”