D.C. Council Mulls Reparative Therapy Ban
Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) presided over a nearly five-hour hearing on Friday where she listened to testimony for and against a bill pending before the D.C. Council that would seek to ban reparative or conversion therapy by prohibiting licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors under the age of 18. Therapists found engaging in such practice could be subject to penalties or risk loss of their license.
The bill, known as the Conversion Therapy for Minors Prohibition Amendment Act of 2013, introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), would restrict mental health professionals from attempting what the bill labels as "sexual orientation change efforts" on minors. Similar bills have passed with bipartisan support in California and New Jersey, rejected by a vote in Illinois, and have denied floor votes in 12 other states, including Virginia.
More than 30 witnesses in total testified at Friday’s public hearing in front of the Committee on Health, which Alexander chairs. Most notably, the bill has drawn opponents from socially conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council and the religious right, as well as from a number of "ex-gay" organizations and foundations that engage in reparative therapy to help patients eliminate what they call "unwanted same-sex attraction." Many of those opposing the bill testified that they had undergone therapy from a licensed practitioner or counseling via their church group to deal with childhood traumas, such as sexual abuse, and, as a result, had been able to rid themselves of feelings of confusion surrounding their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Testifying in favor of the bill were LGBT rights organizations or pro-LGBT organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA), The DC Center for the LGBT Community, and numerous therapists, social workers, and counselors who believe that so-called "conversion therapy" is ineffective and its efficacy is not backed up by scientific research or evidence.
Perhaps the most spirited defense of reparative therapy came from David Pickup, a family and marriage therapist licensed in California and Texas who is seeking to be licensed in the D.C. area. Pickup, who identified himself as a board member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is the lead plaintiff in the case of Pickup v. Brown, a lawsuit challenging California’s ban. Pickup, who identifies as ex-gay, accused the Council of engaging in "an act of hatred" against those who wish to get rid of unwanted same-sex attractions - ex-gays are included among the groups protected by the District’s Human Rights Law - and he and other opponents of the bill claimed that the bill is an overreach that violates the First Amendment rights of therapists and counselors.
"One of the egregious mistakes that is being made is that the way the law is worded, it will make it impossible for a heterosexual boy who is abused to seek treatment and prevent a therapist from doing anything to help him reduce or eliminate homosexual feelings," Pickup told Alexander during his testimony. He also said that some of the stories of therapies recounted by supporters of the bill who attempted to change their sexual orientation have nothing to do with reparative therapy as practiced by responsible, licensed counselors.
While Pickup told Alexander on Friday that he believed the Supreme Court would hear his appeal of a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding California’s ban, he was dealt a blow on Monday after the high court refused to hear the case. As a result, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is allowed to stand, keeping the ban in place. The Ninth Circuit had previously ruled in August of last year that the ban covered professional activities that are within the purview of the state to regulate and license, and that it "does not violate the free speech rights of practitioners or minor patients, is neither vague nor overbroad, and does not violate parents’ fundamental rights."
Still another issue of contention for opponents was the idea that therapists would be prevented from helping their underage patients, even if it was the patient - and not the parents, as many supporters claim - who wanted to be rid of same-sex attraction. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council (FRC) accused the American Psychological Association of being "under the sway of a pro-homosexual lobby," adding, "Critics cannot claim there is no evidence, only that it doesn’t meet some gold standard" that reparative therapy can help lessen feelings of same-sex attraction.
Greg Quinlan, of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), was more blunt, blasting the bill as an "aggressive overreach."
"This bill runs miles ahead of the science for purely political and ideological reasons," Quinlan said angrily.
But supporters of the bill pushed back against the ex-gays’ and their allies’ claims, noting that there is nothing in the bill to prevent a child who has been abused, for example, from seeing a therapist or counselor to deal with the negative after-effects of abuse, and talking about their feelings or confusion regarding same-sex attraction as part of therapy. Rather, they note, the bill simply prohibits counselors from "serving as advocates for their own personal or religious beliefs," as Rev. Graylan Hagler, the senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ and an independent candidate running for the Council, expressed when testifying in support of the bill.