Online Extra: Wedding Bell Blues: Therapist says some reluctant to support SB 1172
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A gay Bay Area-based marriage and family therapist has been criticizing some California professional organizations for not supporting Senate Bill 1172 as a crucial vote nears.
The legislation, authored by state Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), would ban mental health professionals from trying to change minors' sexual orientation through a practice known as reparative therapy. A spokesman for Lieu said that a vote in the Assembly could come as soon as Wednesday, August 22. If approved, SB 1172, which has been amended since it originally passed the Senate, will return to that body for a final vote before it can go to Governor Jerry Brown.
In an email referring to the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the California Psychological Association, Jim Walker, MFT, said the groups "are not saying why they don't support the bill except because passing the bill could interfere with legitimate therapy. How? When? They don't say. These few mental health organizations are not protecting queer and questioning youth as much as they could – and in a manner that has consequences."
CPA now supports SB 1172, but in a Monday, August 20 email to the Bay Area Reporter CAMFT Executive Director Jill Epstein said her organization remains neutral.
"We understand and agree with the concerns of the author and sponsor that prompted this legislation," Epstein said. However, she said, "A ban on a particular form of therapy is unprecedented and may have unintended consequences yet unknown, inadvertently affecting legitimate practice. For example, because the definition of [sexual orientation change efforts] is subject to interpretation by the licensing board, ethical practitioners may be more reluctant to treat minors who have sexual identity issues. For this reason, we are unable to support the bill."
CPA has expressed similar concern about the bill, but in a news release issued Friday, August 17, the organization announced that it's supporting the legislation.
CPA had originally opposed the bill because "an overly broad definition of sexual orientation change efforts may discourage legitimate therapeutic interventions with minors seeking to explore their sexual orientation and identity," among other concerns, the group stated.
However, CPA and others worked with Lieu's office, and the organization changed its position to neutral. Then, as of Friday, it agreed to support SB 1172.
" ... Consistent with the overwhelming weight of research available, we believe that sexual orientation change efforts, where the therapist's intent is to direct, redirect, or influence an individual's sexual orientation, are potentially harmful and have no place as a part of legitimate psychological practice," CPA Executive Director Jo Linder-Crow stated.
In a phone interview, Walker, who offers services in San Francisco and Oakland, explained why he's urging statewide organizations to back the bill.
"The more support that comes from these professional organizations for 1172, the less of an argument the governor has for vetoing it or kicking it to some other part of the government," he said.
In an email Monday, Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said, "As a matter of policy we do not comment on legislation before it reaches the governor's desk."
Walker recalled a client he worked with last year who talked about "how painful it was for him that he was married to a woman and his daughter was coming out [as lesbian] to them, and he didn't support her coming out."
"Subsequently," Walker said, "he finally admitted to himself after having years of so-called reparative therapy that he was gay, and he divorced his wife amicably."
Despite the marriage ending on good terms, Walker said the client, "wished he hadn't gone through the struggle" or the therapy "because it made him feel worse and depressed."
Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said, "We have heard nothing but horror stories and carnage done to mostly young people by this practice, which misleads parents into thinking sexual orientation can or should be changed and subjects young people to, really, a barbaric and inhumane so-called therapy. ... Those scars never heal, and they follow you around in the same way any other abuse does."
In an email blast Friday encouraging people to write letters to their assembly members about the bill, Clarissa Filgioun, board president of Equality California, another co-sponsor, said the "abusive" therapy practice "is not based on science, but on homophobia and a callous disregard for the harm it causes to vulnerable youth. Therapists are hurting young people by shaming them and telling them that who they are is wrong, resulting in depression, loss of self-esteem, social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even suicide."
A petition aimed at getting Brown to sign SB 1172 is available at http://tinyurl.com/d7lgbbq.
Wedding Bell Blues is an online column looking at various issues related to the marriage equality fight in California and elsewhere. Please send column ideas or tips to Seth Hemmelgarn at email@example.com or call (415) 861-5019. Wedding Bell Blues appears every other Tuesday. Due to the upcoming Labor Day holiday, the next column will appear September 18.