By Jason Spencer
A bill in Richmond would prohibit psychologists, therapists and other health care providers from attempting so-called gay conversion therapy on children under 18.
If signed into law, it would make Virginia the third state in the nation to protect children from a decades-old practice that began when the medical community considered homosexuality an illness.
"It's an uphill battle," said state Del. Patrick Hope, an Arlington Democrat who authored the proposed legislation. "This is a brand new issue for people. We have our work cut out for us. But we'll see — hearts and minds are changing all the time."
Hope's bill would make any licensed healthcare provider who engages in sexual orientation change efforts — conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy — on a person under 18 subject to disciplinary action by state regulators.
Conversion therapy essentially attempts to reduce or eliminate feelings of homosexual or bisexual attraction through what's called "non-aversive" techniques such as reframing (interpreting a thought or feeling differently) or hypnosis, or by "aversive" treatments such as electric shock or snapping a rubber band around the wrist when feeling aroused by same-sex thoughts or images.
In the past, such extreme techniques as castration have been used.
Generally, practitioners of conversion therapy believe homosexuality is an illness that can be cured.
The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973.
In 2009, the American Psychological Association voted 125 to 4 that "no solid evidence exists" that therapy can cause a gay man or woman to become straight, according to the New York Times.
The American Psychiatric Association cites the potential risks of reparative therapy as depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior and opposes any such treatment. Many patients say they are told they can never be happy, accepted or satisfied if they are gay; being homosexual and happy is not even presented as an option in the treatment, according to the group.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises young people to avoid any treatments that claim to be able to change sexual orientation or that see homosexuality as a sickness.
And the American School Counselor Association takes the position that "Recognizing that sexual orientation is not an illness and does not require treatment, professional school counselors may provide individual student planning or responsive services to LGBTQ students to promote self-acceptance, deal with social acceptance, understand issues related to 'coming out,' including issues that families may face when a student goes through this process, and identify appropriate community resources."
- Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel
"This is a dangerous practice. If consenting adults want to do this, that's their business. But we've got to protect our children," Hope, a healthcare attorney, told Patch. "To force a minor into these feelings at such an impressionable age, the risks far outweigh the benefits. And there are no benefits. This does not work."
That same sentiment was echoed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in August, when he signed a bill into law banning conversion therapies for minors in the Garden State.
Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, at the time said, "Government should tread carefully in this area." He cited the potential harm of conversion therapy listed by the American Psychological Association — that it could lead to substance abuse or suicidal thoughts — and said, "I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate," according to the Washington Post.
New Jersey is only the second state to outlaw the practice. California was the first.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which struck down two challenges to the California ban, specifically found that the prohibition of conversion therapy did not violate the free speech of medical practitioners — doctors cannot seriously claim First Amendment protection for giving out negligent advice, Judge Susan P. Graber wrote — nor did it violate the fundamental rights of parents. Parents do not have the right to choose a type of treatment the state has reasonably found harmful, the court ruled.
A federal judge ruled along the same lines in November in upholding the New Jersey ban. The Garden State law is being challenged again, this time on the grounds that the ban infringes on the rights of a 15-year-old to receive the type of therapy he wants.
The teenager struggled with homosexual feelings, feelings that conflicted with his Roman Catholic beliefs, and attempted suicide multiple times, the Los Angeles Times reports, citing court documents. He claims his feelings of same-sex attraction began to weaken after starting conversion therapy.
Still, Hope said he believes the California and New Jersey bans successfully being upheld bodes well for a similar law in Virginia.
His bill has been referred to a House Health, Welfare and Institutions subcommittee, and it could be heard as soon as Thursday.
"Thoughts and views on homosexuality are changing on a daily basis," he told Patch. "I see it even here, among the members of the General Assembly."