Sam Brinton says that his father first tried physical abuse to rid his young son of homosexual feelings. When that didn't work, Brinton's parents turned to something called reparative therapy.
Some of the memories are hazy more than 10 years later, but Brinton does remember the tactics the counselor used. There was talk therapy, about how God disapproved, and there was aversion therapy, during which pictures of men touching men would be accompanied by the application of heat or ice. “It was pretty much mental torture,” Brinton says. “To this day, I still have light pain when I shake hands with another male.”
More than a decade after leading medical organizations abandoned the idea that homosexuality was something that could be cured or corrected, the concept of conversion therapy remains a particularly charged issue for LGBT advocates. Two states outlaw the practice and legislation is pending in another. But not all the momentum is against reparative therapy. Earlier this month the Texas Republican Party voted to include support for the practice in their party platform. Now a group of advocates and lawmakers are launching a new effort to ban licensed counselors from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation through therapy of any kind.
On June 24, the National Center for Lesbian Rights will announce the beginning of a campaign called #BornPerfect, an educational and legislative push to “make clear that every LGBT person is born perfect,” says executive director Kate Kendell. “It is now generally understood that sexual orientation cannot and should not be changed and that efforts to change it are damaging.” She believes that the time is right for the campaign, as LGBT people have become more accepted in society and medical establishments have come out against what is also called conversion therapy.
On June 16, the New York State assembly voted 86 to 28 to pass a reparative-therapy ban, and though Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed support for the bill, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled state senate blocked the measure from coming to the floor for a full vote. Had the senate passed the bill, New York would have become the third state, after California and New Jersey, to put such a law on the books.
Opponents like Liberty Counsel, a legal organization affiliated with Liberty University, were also ready to file a lawsuit, much like those the organization filed against the California and New Jersey laws.
Daniel Schmid, Liberty Counsel’s lead litigator, says that bans on reparative therapy potentially violate the freedom of speech, freedom of religion and parental rights of those who would perform or seek it. “If you allow [counselors] to talk about sexual orientation to minors, you can’t allow only one viewpoint to be presented,” he says. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against that argument in California last August, instead siding with the logic that such a law amounts to professional regulation, a condition for providing state counseling licenses. Schmid and his clients, including therapists and families, have appealed to the Supreme Court.
Homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnostic bible published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in 1973. In 1998, the APA released a statement saying the organization “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder, or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.” Schmid argues that the statement is based more on politics than documentation of harm caused by such therapy.
The #BornPerfect campaign will aim to dissuade parents who might be considering reparative therapy by providing them access to psychological experts and those who have been through such treatment, like Brinton. “We have no doubt they love their children,” Kendell says, noting that many parents might believe LGBT people lead more difficult lives and wish to spare their children from hardship. “We want parents to understand there are resources for them to come to terms with embracing their child as they are,” she says, whether those are online or public forums. The campaign will also include ongoing legislative efforts in other states to pass reparative-therapy bans, though Kendell declined to say which will be next at this time for fear it would mobilize the movement’s opponents.
Though conversion therapy is largely associated with sexual orientation, the #BornPerfect campaign will also aim to prevent therapy that is aimed at changing a child’s gender identity, in the cases that a child does not identify with the gender that corresponds with the sex that was assigned at birth. “To the extent that this is a budding practice,” Kendell says, “we want to nip it."
One well-known reparative therapist is Joseph Nicolosi, based in Encino, Calif. A banner at the top of his website says, “You Don’t Have to Be Gay,” with bullet points that advertise the ability to “Diminish your unwanted homosexuality” and “Develop your heterosexual potential.” Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which has also worked to oppose the reparative-therapy bans, argues that sexual orientation is “fluid well into adulthood” and can be influenced by factors such as a domineering mother or history of sexual abuse. “A truly tolerant nation is one that respects the rights of all Americans,” he says, “not just those who happen to be the political majority of a legislature.”
After a year and a half in therapy, and multiple suicide attempts, Brinton finally lied and promised to have been cured of homosexual thoughts. “It kept me in the closet for so many years,” Brinton says. “There’s a huge amount of internalized shame. And it’s all related to just this nagging trauma of something’s wrong.”