The facts about ‘conversion therapy’ ban

Reps. Khan and Cutler misrepresent their legislation

RECENTLY, THE MASSACHUSETTS House and Senate passed a measure that prohibits licensed counselors from speaking to minors in a way that would “attempt or purport to change” that minor’s sexual orientation or gender-identity-related behaviors.  The measure also prohibited counseling that was an effort to “eliminate or reduce” the above, but specifically allowed counseling that promoted or encouraged that minor to act on their same-sex inclinations or opposite-sex identity.  

In an April 3rd op-ed in CommonWealth, the bill’s sponsor and co-sponsor (Reps. Kay Khan and Josh Cutler) characterize all identity therapy as being “widely debunked” by health care professionals and cite the opposition by the American Psychiatric Association as well as a movie as supporting authority for this claim. 

The crux of the sponsors’ argument is that the bill is “very narrowly drawn” to protect minors, since minors “cannot meaningfully offer consent.”  The article then makes a variety of other assertions about the bill that are dubious at best.    

At the outset, we can discard the straw man that characterizes opponents as arguing that minors should be forced to change their sexual inclinations against that minor’s will.  If one reads the bill, one sees that it outlaws any counseling conversations that even reduce a minor’s feelings or perceptions of being the opposite sex, even if the minor asks for help reducing those feelings. This “reduction” appears to be anything except urging such a child to cross-dress, become dependent on damaging hormones for life, or even undergo plastic surgery to mimic external sexual features of the opposite sex.  

The article also claims that faith leaders are exempted. This is unfortunately an outright falsehood. The bill contains nothing that would exempt, say, a licensed pastor or imam from facing full legal penalties if they “reduced or eliminated” a minor’s same-sex inclinations or opposite-sex identity.  

Interestingly, the article promises that this bill would not impose “any new burden or duty on a parent.” No doubt the article is referencing the 51A provision originally found in the Senate version of the bill (S.70) that classified this type of talk therapy as being on par with physical or sexual abuse, sex trafficking, malnutrition, and other heinous forms of child abuse (although giving a child puberty blockers would not be considered child abuse).  This is noteworthy because Representative Khan is also aware that she has filed H.137, a bill that creates a commission tasked with recommending to agencies ways to expand the definition of child abuse – skirting the democratic process.  Khan has made it quite clear she believes this type of counseling is child abuse.  

As far as constitutionality, it is easy to claim in an op-ed that this would survive a legal challenge. But Khan is well aware that although the Supreme Court denied appeal to both cases (Pickup v. Brown and King v. Governor of NJ), they did so prior to 2015. NIFLA, the SCOTUS opinion that specifically rejects both of the above cases by name, was decided in 2018.  

But most of all, we should welcome the call of Reps. Khan and Cutler for evidence, as the evidence of beneficial identity counseling is legion.  Changemovement.comCourage InternationalWalt Heyer’s, and a myriad others can testify to that. They can be suppressed but they cannot be silenced. S. L. Jones & M. A. Yarhouse (2011), “A longitudinal study of attempted religiously-mediated sexual orientation change”; Pela & Nicolosi (2016), “Clinical outcomes for same-sex attraction distress: Well-being and change”; Santero, Whitehead and Ballesteros (2018), “Effects of Therapy on Religious Men Who Have Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction”; and many, many others.  

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Finally, it is worth noting that the sweeping characterizations drawn from aberrant or extreme instances of “conversion” counseling are at most cherry-picked cases that most of us can agree are harmful.  As evident from the stories cited above, the principles behind most identity therapy being offered are unassailable.  It is worth noting that Martin Luther King Jr.’s only public statement about homosexual inclinations, for example, was urging a young man with unwanted same-sex attraction to seek this type of counseling. I find it hard to believe that MLK would endorse “child abuse” that preys on the vulnerable.  It is callous and ruthless to erase those who wish to tell their story of how identity therapy helped them. 

Christopher Jay is an attorney with the Massachusetts Family Institute.