Will conversion therapy be banned in the U.S.?
The answer depends on how we choose to balance religious freedom, social inclusion, and the search for self-identity.
- Most medical and mental health organizations have condemned conversion therapy as injurious and lacking support of empirical evidence.
- Today, 19 states and many cities have passed laws protecting youths from the practice.
- However, lawsuits and pushback by religious organizations have limited what laws can be passed.
Recent years have seen a monumental shift in conversion therapy's standing in society. In 2017, the New York City Council passed an ordinance banning anyone from charging a fee for conversion therapy services. Last year, Utah became the 19th state to outlaw conversion therapy for minors, with support from the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints. Twenty-three more states have legislation pending, and former president Obama even floated the idea of a nationwide ban in his second term.
While progress has been undeniable and hard-fought, it may also feel disenchanting given the time we've had to course correct. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, and we've long known that such therapies are far from efficacious. The customary outcome is the opposite of rehabilitation: mental anguish compounded by lingering homosexual urges and social abjection.
So, if conversion therapy lacks mainstream approval, why hasn't it been banned?
What exactly is conversion therapy?
Though former president Obama floated the idea of a nationwide ban on conversion therapy, it never came to fruition during this term.
Conversion therapy seeks to "cure" homosexuals and bisexuals by changing their sexual orientation to heterosexual. That's as close as we can get to a unifying definition, because the principles and practices diverge wildly beyond that core goal.
The therapist could be a religious individual who views homosexuality through the lens of sin or a family member hoping to correct a wayward child. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists may also practice conversion therapy, but since homosexuality is not a classified mental disorder, their beliefs vary with their school of theory.
A psychoanalytic approach, for example, may assert homosexuality to be a divergence from normal psychosexual development—the classic, and ill-substantiated, Freudian tale of the absent father and over-doting mother.
The so-called treatments are no less varied.
Aversive conditioning, for example, may ask a patient to wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap themselves whenever a homosexual urge or thought arises. In more extreme forms, patients will be shown homosexual images while the therapist instigates a noxious sensation, such as an electric shock or nausea-inducing drug. Cessation of the negative stimuli may then be paired with opposite-sex erotica—with the goal of strengthening the patient's preference for heterosexual feelings.
Sam Brinton, who underwent conversion therapy as a middle-school student in the early 2000s, recounts his aversive conditioning in a New York Times op-ed:
The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat, and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end, it didn't work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.
Other techniques include shaming, spiritual interventions, fantasy modification, and social-skills training, such as teaching patients to act more gender normative or how to ask out the opposite sex. While not physically harmful, these treatments cultivate feelings of depression and social isolation in the patient.
"Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather, they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings," writes Douglas C. Haldeman, a counseling psychologist and former member of the APA Board of Directors. Such procedures applied to any other patient, he reminds us, would be aptly labeled as torture.
Is there evidence that conversion therapy works?
In 2017, Dannel Malloy, then governor of Connecticut, signed into law the state's ban against practicing conversion therapy on minors.
All told, 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have received conversion therapy in some form, according to a Williams Institute report. While some studies and testimonials purport to have successfully altered some of their sexual orientations, such claims crumble when one examines the slipshod methodology and flawed data gathering.
"No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed," states the APA in its position statement.
In an examination of the evidence, Haldeman found several methodological flaws. These included using only clinical samples, a lack of replicability, poor assessment of sexual orientation, and outcomes substantiated by internal validation rather than external data.
Many studies, for example, hang their results on either therapist impressions or self-reporting. But such measurements cannot prove conversion. Therapists may cite a momentary drop in homosexual arousal as a full-fledged cure, while demeaned patients may report conversion in a bid to acquire personal and social validation.
"This reiterates one of the major objections to conversion studies: These interventions do not shift sexual orientation at all," Haldeman writes. "Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather, they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings."
Beyond a lack of methodological rigor, conversion therapy houses many ethical concerns. These include patient blaming, patient abandonment, indiscriminate treatments, breaches of confidentiality, and building informed consent on the subjective beliefs of the practitioner, not medical consensus.
These practices violate the ethical standards adopted by most professional organizations, and like the APA, many have issued statements condoning its use. Among them: the American College of Physicians, the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American School Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Medical consensus versus religious freedom?
Given the history, the lack of evidence, the harm done, the ethics violated, and the changing times—given all of this—one would think a universal ban was soon to come. But that doesn't appear to be the case.
Remember that New York City ordinance? The city council repealed it in 2019 after the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the ordinance. The group claimed the ban infringed on people's freedom of speech and religion.
"All New Yorkers and all Americans deserve the right to private conversations, free from government control," Roger Brooks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. "By trying to regulate and censor private sessions between an adult and his counselor, New York City directly violated freedom of speech—a core right that the First Amendment protects."
Council members chose to repeal the ordinance rather than risk it going to the Supreme Court, where they feared the court's conservative alignment would set a precedent making future LGBTQ advocacy efforts more difficult.
And to gain backing from the Mormon church, the Utah bill had to stipulate an exception for clergy, religious counselors, and any child's parent or grandparent who is also a mental health therapist.
"Progress is progress in this state. You kind of have to make some compromises," Justin Utley, a conversion therapy survivor, told the Associated Press. "My concern, though, is clergy who are licensed professionals having this ability to justify conversion therapy by claiming that they've turned off the switch and now are acting as a clergy member instead of a licensed professional. That's a very dangerous precedent."
Utley's concern is founded. A study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that attempts by family members and religious leaders to change an LGBT adolescent's sexual orientation can lead to multiple health and behavioral risks. The researchers found higher levels of depression compared to those who reported no conversion experience, as well as double rates of attempted suicide. Undergoing conversion therapy was also correlated with young LGBT adults attaining less education and lower socioeconomic status.
As Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project and the study's lead author, said in a release: "Although parents and religious leaders who try to change a child's LGBT identity may be motivated by attempts to 'protect' their children, these rejecting behaviors instead undermine an LGBT child's sense of self-worth, contribute to self-destructive behaviors that significantly increase risk and inhibit self-care, which includes constricting their ability to make a living."
Can we find the balance?
An 2010 anti-gay protest in San Francisco.
Given all this: Will conversion therapy be banned in the U.S.? The answer is probably not—at least, a universal prohibition is unlikely.
As we saw with Utah and New York City, any universal ban would be viewed with skepticism and hostility by some religious organizations. Opponents will argue a person's religious identity is a critical facet to their sense of self, and the government cannot institute legislation to revokes anyone's right to cultivate that identity as they choose. And they have a point.
As Douglas Haldeman writes in a paper on the subject:
We sometimes forget, however, that religious identity and practice is a form of human diversity that is also often misunderstood and that deserves psychology's attention. Although it is sometimes the case that attempting to combat scriptural references to homosexuality with psychological knowledge about the subject is like trying to have a conversation in two different languages, that does not mean that we should turn away from the conversation.
However, Haldeman also notes that the right to choose conversion therapy goes beyond religious orientation. It is often driven by the "internalized effects of a hostile family and an intolerant society" and a desire for acceptance.
How do we balance these seemingly competing needs?
First, a ban on conversion therapy for minors is necessary and widely supported. Children and adolescents need love, support, and the time to explore and grow into all facets of their identities. As Caitlin Ryan pointed out, conversion therapy disrupts this healthy process and replaces it with one of rejection and undermined self-worth that ripples well into adulthood.
"We're building off several years of great success in the movement to protect youth from conversion therapy," Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, told Forbes. "We've seen continued momentum because the stories of survivors are getting out there."
Regulatory bodies should develop guidelines to assist adults harmed by conversion therapies and improve access to non-conversion therapies. Adults may still choose conversion therapy as a right, but hopefully, they will have an easier time finding the counseling, community, and support they need if that therapy fails them.
Finally, improved education and understanding can disentangle the biases and social stigmas that push people to seek conversion therapy in the first place. In this regard, we are trending in the right direction. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that half of Americans now believe sexual orientation cannot be changed, while only 36 believe it can be.
"Ideally, the individual ultimately integrates sexual orientation and spirituality into the overall concept of identity by resolving anti-gay stigma internalized from negative experiences in family, social, educational, and/or vocational contexts" Haldeman concludes in his paper.
Even without laws banning conversion therapy, that's still an idea we can strive for in society.
- How To Be Wrong Right - Big Think ›
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- Are Gay Rights Civil Rights? - Big Think ›
To create wiser adults, add empathy to the school curriculum.
- Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
- Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
- Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.
- U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
- The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
- The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.
- Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
- Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
- Where's an El Niño when you need one?
Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.
NOAA expects a busy season
According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.
Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.
What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.
This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.
Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:
- The ocean there is warmer than usual.
- There's reduced vertical wind shear.
- Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
- There have been strong West African monsoons this year.
Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:
ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.
First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.
Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.
Image source: NOAA
Batten down the hatches early
If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.
Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."
Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.
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