In 2005, a 16-year-old boy named Zack Stark used his MySpace page to tell the world about his experience at Refuge, a two-to-six-week fundamentalist Christian camp. Stark’s parents had sent him there in the hope of changing his sexual orientation from gay to straight. In an email to his parents, the leaders of the program described details of the camp, including “solitary confinement, isolation, and extreme restrictions of attire, correspondence, and privacy sanctioned by biblical quotations.” Using social media to tell his story to the world, Stark wrote, “Even if I do come out straight, I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter.”
Unfortunately, Stark’s experience with so-called reparative therapy, also known as conversion therapy, was not unusual. But if some lawmakers in New Jersey have their way, it might become illegal, at least in the Garden State. But first, a bill outlawing the practice has to get past Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is up for re-election and who does not have a good record on LGBTQ rights.
The law in question was proposed by Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen County), who is openly gay and has two sons with his partner of over 30 years. The ban would prevent licensed practitioners from performing gay conversion therapy on minors, even if parental permission is given. If passed, the state would become the second in the nation to ban the practice; California outlawed conversion therapy in October 2012, but that law is on hold pending a court ruling on its constitutionality.
The Rise and Fall of Reparative Therapy
The reparative therapy movement began to emerge after the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. At that time, some psychotherapists and psychologists remained committed to “curing” homosexuality, but the majority of people who supported a “cure” for homosexuality came from a religious rather than a mental health background.
Proponents argued that reparative therapy offered a lifeline to homosexual individuals who they say were deeply conflicted about their sexuality; recipients of these “treatments” were mostly men and were often members of religions that disapproved of homosexuality. But their methods were often severe and included aversion therapy (having participants imagine a same-sex sexual experience gone bad) and electric shock therapy (showing participants same-sex erotica and shocking them if they became aroused), methods that were and are even more disturbing when practiced on adolescents at the request of their parents.
These proponents, who sometimes refer to themselves and their clients as “ex-gays,” became more vocal during the 1990s. In 1998, for example, 15 prominent conservative groups paid for a $1 million ad campaign telling people they could “pray away the gay.” The groups also became synonymous with efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals; they argued against teaching about sexual orientation in schools, fought the formation of gay-straight alliances, opposed marriage equality, and worked to prevent LGBTQ individuals from adopting children.
In recent years, the influence of these groups has waned. First there were the scandals in which group leaders like John Paulk and George Rekers were caught not exactly practicing what they preached. Rekers was co-founder of the Family Research Council and was often called to testify as an anti-gay “expert” in adoption cases. In 2010, he was discovered on vacation with a male escort he had hired on a website called RentBoy.com. When caught, Rekers initially claimed that he had hired the young man to lift his heavy luggage.
Then there were the apologies from former “ex-gay” leaders like Michael Bussee and John Smid, who had been prominent figures in the infamous reparative therapy organization Exodus International. In 2006 and 2011, respectively, Bussee and Smid admitted that they were wrong about it being possible to change one’s sexual orientation.
In 2009, the APA published a report looking at 83 studies on reparative therapy. It concluded that there was no credible evidence that reparative therapy works; moreover, the report found it could be harmful, specifically calling out programs designed for adolescents.
Last year, a psychiatrist who published a study often used to support reparative therapy also apologized and admitted his methods were flawed.
And finally, last summer, Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, announced that the organization would no longer practice reparative therapy because it was ineffective and harmful. Though Chambers did not say that he or his organization approved of same-sex relationships, he acknowledged that it is not possible to change one’s orientation and said that homosexual Evangelical Christians should be prepared to face a lifetime of struggle.
We Still Need Laws Banning Reparative Therapy
With the reparative therapy movement apparently in a rapid decline, it might seem that laws like the one Eustace proposed are unnecessary. But the testimony to the state senate committee considering the bill tells a different story.
College student Jonathon Bier, for example, testified that his Yeshiva school threatened to kick him out if he did not submit to reparative therapy. He told the committee, “The therapy involved my reading specific portions of the Bible over and over on a weekly basis for the year. I was told about the dangers of homosexuality, how it’s connected to disease, mental illness, a life of unhappiness. This hurt me deeply. To this day I’m still affected.”
The bill passed the committee, and though it still needs to be voted on by the full senate, all eyes have turned to Gov. Christie, a rising star in the Republican party who is expected by many political analysts to run for president in 2016. He gained national attention and angered many members of his own party when he appeared to support President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, just weeks before the 2012 elections. Christie is up for re-election in November, and Democrats both in the state and beyond are looking for places where he is vulnerable.
They found an opportunity last week when Christie was asked about his views on reparative therapy and whether he would sign the law. He stumbled, saying he didn’t have enough information and hadn’t actually heard of reparative therapy before the law was introduced. When explaining his opinion, he admitted, “I know basically what I’ve read in the papers, so I don’t want to give too much of a comment on it.” But he went on to say about parental rights, “I’m of two minds on this one. Number one, I think there should be lots of deference given to parents on raising their children. I don’t—this is a general philosophy, not to his bill—generally philosophically, on bills that restrict parents’ ability to make decisions on how to care for their children, I’m generally a skeptic of those bills. Now, there can always be exceptions to those rules, and this bill may be one of them.”
Despite having left his views quite open, his Democratic challenger for governor jumped on his comments. In a statement on her website, Barbara Buono said, “Gay children don’t need to be ‘cured,’ they need to be loved and accepted for who they are, just like ALL of our children. Yet, Governor Christie says he’s ‘of two minds’ on banning gay conversion therapy, a cruel and damaging process of trying to shame children into being someone they’re not. It’s an outrageous practice and it has no place in New Jersey. That Governor Christie would dignify this shameful practice is disgusting. I urge all New Jerseyans who value equality to speak out and make clear to Governor Christie that his intolerance has no place in our state.”
The Democratic Governors Association also pounced, labeling Christie a “right-wing reactionary” in an email to supporters.
The next day, a spokesperson for the governor clarified his position on the issue: “Gov. Christie does not believe in conversion therapy. There is no mistaking his point of view on this when you look at his own prior statements where he makes clear that people’s sexual orientation is determined at birth.”
The spokesperson did not say, however, whether the governor would sign the bill. Though he claims his views on the issue are not political, LGBTQ rights are a tricky issue for him. As governor of a blue state, Christie cannot seem too socially conservative, but if he comes out as too liberal on LGBTQ rights, he risks alienating conservatives across the country whose support he would need, especially during the presidential primary season. In 2012, Christie toed the line by vetoing a same-sex marriage law but claiming that he did so because the issue should be decided by voters and not legislators. Given that every major medical group has opposed conversion therapy, it seems safe for Christie to come out strongly against it without losing too much ground with conservatives. Still, it will be interesting to see what he does if the law ends up on his desk.