Pray away the gay? Certainly not. But we can ban dangerous therapy.

A rainbow flag, a universal symbol for gay civil rights, is carried down San Francisco's Market Street in the city's annual Gay Pride parade on June 30, 2013.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There may have been a time when the impulse to “cure” people of their homosexuality through psychological or spiritual intervention was accepted as an ethical course of action.

Those days are long gone.

And yet even today, despite all the evidence that it’s harmful, the practice, known as “reparative therapy,” “conversion therapy” or “sex orientation change efforts,” continues to mess with the sanity of youngsters coming to grips with who they are.

“Ten or 15 years ago, our main challenge was getting people to believe that this was harmful to people,” said Samantha Ames, a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, part of a coalition of civil rights groups like Equality California and mental health organizations, toiling to outlaw reparative therapy for minors state by state.


But in 2009, she noted, the American Psychological Assn. issued a report condemning such therapy, which is sometimes trivialized as “pray away the gay.”

(According to the report, “Behavior therapists tried a variety of aversion treatments, such as inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis; providing electric shocks; or having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when the individual became aroused to same-sex erotic images or thoughts.... Cognitive therapists attempted to change gay men’s and lesbians’ thought patterns by reframing desires, redirecting thoughts, or using hypnosis, with the goal of changing sexual arousal, behavior, and orientation.”)

“Since then,” Ames said, “our main challenge has been getting people to believe that this is still going on, which it very much is.”

So far, only two states have outlawed the practice among licensed professionals such as therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. California was the first. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law into effect in 2012. “These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery,” Brown said.

The second state was New Jersey, whose Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed the law the same year he vetoed a marriage equality bill. He said the law would protect children from “critical health risks, including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.”

“So this is clearly not just a political issue,” Ames said. “And it becomes clear, even to somebody like him, who is against our rights in so many other ways, that this isn’t about being gay. It’s about protecting kids.”

At the moment, the legislation has been introduced in a handful of other states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. A dozen or so others are preparing bills.

Conservative religious legal groups such as the Pacific Justice Institute, which is leading the charge against California’s groundbreaking transgender students’ rights law, have been fighting the trend.


They claim the laws violate free speech rights, parental rights and religious rights. But already two federal courts have disagreed, upholding the California and New Jersey measures.

One of the plaintiffs in the PJI’s case, Aaron Bitzer, is a Culver City man who said he has benefited from reparative therapy. He wanted to become licensed to practice such therapy himself, and claims he is now being denied that career choice. Here, he explains why he joined the lawsuit.

I met Ames at a recent Human Rights Campaign’s conference in Las Vegas, which focused on issues faced by LGBT youth. (It made headlines as the venue chosen by actress Ellen Page to come out.)

Ames moderated a session about reparative therapy that highlighted the experience of a 25-year-old graduate student who said he was subjected to a kind of fire-and-ice torment by a Christian counselor when he was an adolescent.


He said his therapist told him that the government had killed all gay children because gays were responsible for the AIDS epidemic, and that, for his protection, he needed to be “cured.” He said his hands were iced, and later, electroshocked while the therapist showed him sexual photographs of men. “It was torture,” he said.

Stories like that are extreme and are far less common than they were in the 1950s and ‘60s, but it’s appalling and how many people cling to the idea that homosexuality can be “cured.”

It was only last month that the American Assn. of Christian Counselors deleted its defense of reparative therapy from its code of ethics. The group’s code now acknowledges that the conflict between religious belief and same-sex attraction can result in “anxiety, depression, stress and inner turmoil.”

“They haven’t come out against it,” said Ames, “but they have taken a step back, recognizing that this is harmful.”


And last year, in a move that stunned and pleased many gay rights activists, the evangelical Christian ministry Exodus International, which for years had supported reparative therapy and promised to “help” gay people limit their same-sex urges or even go straight, closed its doors. Its president, Alan Chambers, apologized for its misguided mission and practices, which included creating an ex-gay app, which Apple later removed, and sending several executives to Uganda in 2009 to speak at a conference promoting the country’s horrific anti-gay policies.

“Everyone should have the right to pursue the life they want to pursue,” Chambers told me when I reached him by phone at home in Florida the other day. “We began distancing ourselves from the whole reparative therapy community and publicly denounced it more than a year before we closed our doors.”

Chambers said on balance, he believes that Exodus did more good than harm, but he thinks that anyone claiming to be able to “cure” sexual orientation is perpetuating a fraud.

“I know there are parents who beat their kids because they are gay, or put them out because they are gay,” Chambers said. “And I have talked to a lot of young people and adults who were taken as minors for that kind of therapy. I am not a fan of big government and enacting all sorts of laws, but I do believe that kids should be protected from people and counselors who say, ‘You can change.’ Minors try to live within the values that their parents espouse. But trying to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ [homosexuality] is detrimental.”


I guess the moral is that if you try hard enough, you really can change ... your attitude that homosexuality needs to be cured.


More from Robin Abcarian

Twitter: @robinabcarian