A New Jersey legislative bill (S2278/A3371) entitled Protects Minors by Prohibiting Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation was recently signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, making New Jersey the second state to take such a stance on regulating psychotherapy. The concern being addressed by such legislation is that young people who are struggling with same-sex attraction will be forced by their parents to undergo therapy aimed at changing their sexual inclinations. Presumably, the belief is that these often-distressed youth are better off accepting their current perception and feelings, regardless of their long-term impact, rather than engaging in some perhaps-difficult self-examination which could lead to healing and more fulfilling options for their future.
Sadly, the foundation on which the legislation rests is riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions, and lacks thorough discernment of this complex issue. At root, the legislation assumes that people are "born gay" and that efforts to change attractions or orientation are futile at best, and abusive at worst.
In signing the bill, Governor Christie said that he looked "to experts in the field to determine the relative risks and rewards…. The American Psychological Association (APA) has found that efforts to change sexual orientation can pose critical health risks including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts…. I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate. Based upon this analysis, I sign this bill into law."
In uncritically accepting assertions that do not, in fact, reflect the complex conclusions found in social science research, the governor and legislature missed crucial information. To begin, the input of other experts that would provide needed balance and lead to greater understanding was ignored, despite the experts' proactive effort to provide it. Next, the input utilized was not considered in its entirety, as Peter Sprigg summarizes so well in his response to this decision. The conclusion of the 2009 APA task force, in which the legislation was presumably grounded, actually states that "nature and nurture both play complex roles" in the development of same sex attraction, and that some people perceive they have benefitted from "sexual orientation change efforts" (SOCE). Furthermore, the long-known fact that same-sex attraction is fluid/changing, rather than fixed, is confirmed by Ritch Savin-Williams, one of the nation's leading experts on homosexually-oriented teens. Savin-Williams reviewed evidence which demonstrates that as few as 11% of teens who identified as homosexual at a point in time, remained exclusively homosexual just one year later. In other words, 89% of these teens are changing, with or without therapy. These types of findings debunk any notion of there being a genetic basis for homosexuality, or that someone who believes he is homosexual at some point in his adolescence is permanently settled in his identity development.
With mental health researchers, both gay-advocates and those holding more traditional views, documenting the lack of certainty about the origins and development of same-sex attraction, one wonders how entire state legislatures have gotten into the business of dictating permitted medical interventions. To be sure, there is no doubt that teens who experience same-sex attractions are at increased risk of a host of mental and emotional issues such as those reflected in the list above. What is critical to understand is that these risks are best understood as co-occurring with the same-sex attractions necessarily, because the attractions are not congruent with the bio-physiology of the person having them. In other words, when we go against our natural design, bad things happen.
These risks are not occurring because a struggling youth is given an empathic ear by a trusted professional who is willing to hear about the family relational struggles and the peer rejection a youngster has experienced. While there are accounts of sensational interventions using electric shock and sexual exposure right out of a scene from A Clockwork Orange, no serious licensed practitioner would engage in such unethical approaches.
The real issue consistently returns to a vocal minority of people, who themselves (or a beloved family member or friend) are engaged in same-sex relationships, agitating for more acceptance. One gay advocacy group leader said in a statement immediately after the signing of the bill that "It will protect young people from being abused by those they should trust the most, their parents and their doctors." The suggestion being made, that parents seeking help for children who struggle with same-sex attraction are somehow inflicting, or at least allowing, abuse, should raise some eyebrows; but it is printed indifferently alongside the other comments for and against the proposition. In signing the bill, Governor Christie said that he "took into account concerns about the government 'limiting parental choice' in the treatment of their children," but in the end allowed this to be trumped by the inaccurately-interpreted and imprecisely-quoted task force study from "the experts."
So, in the end, the youth of New Jersey (like their California peers before them) are left less protected, following the passing of the "Protection" law: less protected by their parents, who are now prohibited from helping them explore in a prudent, discerning way with a knowledgeable professional, the idea that they may be going through a painful yet resolvable developmental identity issue; and less protected by the mental health professional, who must now, by law, reinforce the poor lad's confused state by only offering gay-affirming interventions, which may in the end solidify a life course that was only, in reality, a transitional skew.
Our youth need time to explore and heal; particularly so those who are struggling, confused, distressed, or rejected. And at times, this requires professional assistance from someone who respects and understands their dignity as God made them.