Last night, President Obama released a statement calling for an end to what is sometimes called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy for LGBT youth. Written by Valerie Jarrett on behalf of the President, the statement is a response to a petition that appeared on the WhiteHouse.gov site after the suicide of the transgender teen Josh “Leelah” Alcorn late last year. Among other things, it says that “this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.” The statement comes out in support of state legislation to outlaw the practice, and it invites the U. S. Congress to send similar legislation to the President for him to sign.
The statement explains why President Obama thinks so-called “conversion” therapy should be outlawed:
When assessing the validity of conversion therapy, or other practices that seek to change an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation, it is as imperative to seek guidance from certified medical experts. The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.
There is much more to this statement, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. I have read it, and there are a number of serious problems with the statement that deserve some attention. I’ll highlight four:
1. The statement confuses sexual orientation with gender identity.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, but the President’s statement treats them as if they are. It treats gender identity as if it were fixed and stable. But this is not true, and numerous secular authorities have demonstrated this. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says that the vast majority of children who report transgender feelings grow out of those feelings. In one particular study, “70%-80% of them spontaneously lost those feelings.” It may be true that some people experience homosexual orientation as a more “fixed” reality, but the same is not true for transgender identity. And the White House statement fails to recognize that fact.
2. The statement fails to recognize that sexual orientation is not fixed for some people.
Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones published a study in 2007 tracking the success of so-called “conversion” therapies. They presented additional findings in 2009 to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. They conclude that,
Some people do report a change in attractions over time. For those who report a change, it tends to come in the form of a reduction in homosexual attractions, but these reductions are typically not complete. A smaller number of people also report an increase in heterosexual attraction. In some instances this may be attraction to the opposite sex in general; in other cases it may reflect attraction to only one individual of the opposite sex, such as a person’s spouse.
The bottom line is that change is possible for some people. Change is not necessarily a 180-degree change in orientation but may be change along a spectrum. Some report no change at all.
One does not have to be a proponent of “conversion” therapy (which I am not) to see that orientation is more fluid than some people think. If it is possible for some people to change, what interest does the government have in prohibiting same-sex attracted people from seeking licensed providers to help them?
3. The statement prohibits too much.
The statement seeks to outlaw not merely “conversion” or “reparative” therapy, but “any practices by mental health providers that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
I am no fan of reparative therapy. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a Christian approach to helping LGBT people. Yes, some Christians have supported reparative therapy, but I think that support has been mistaken. Reparative therapy has a very secular genesis and methodology and makes unbiblical assumptions about the human condition and gospel change (for more on this, read Heath Lambert’s very helpful critique of reparative therapy). So I am not a booster for reparative therapy.
Having said that, the President’s statement doesn’t merely oppose the secular approach known as reparative therapy. It seeks to outlaw any licensed provider from helping LGBT children to change—even those who do not use reparative therapy. It supports state laws like the one passed in New Jersey in 2013. The New Jersey law not only prohibits “reparative therapy.” It prohibits any and all attempts by licensed counselors to change a child’s sexual orientation. And there’s more. The bill not only prohibits any and all efforts to change sexual orientation. It also prohibits any and all attempts to change sexual behavior in gay minors!
So if a child has unwanted same-sex attractions and is beginning to act out on those unwanted attractions, the state of New Jersey prohibits licensed counselors from helping him. He has no recourse now but to find someone with no state credentials. How is this law not an infringement upon the religious liberty and conscience rights of this child? Not to mention those of his parents?
Any attempt to change a child’s “gender expression” is also prohibited under the New Jersey law. That means that if a parent has a young boy who likes to put on dresses and wear make-up, New Jersey law prohibits licensed counselors from helping that boy. Counselors must approve and support whatever gender that child chooses regardless of the child’s sex.
4. The statement would prevent Christians from licensure.
Laws like the one in New Jersey and that the President supports mean that licensed mental health providers who also happen to be Christian will have to choose. They can either abandon Christian teaching or they can abandon their profession. The law now prohibits them from doing both. There is no religious liberty exception.
Bottom line? Laws like the one in New Jersey prevent convictional Christians from participating in mental health professions without compromising their faith. They also prevent children with unwanted same-sex attraction from having help from licensed counselors. Christian mental health providers and other people of faith in New Jersey now have their marginalization ensconced in law. And this is precisely what President Obama supports and wishes to implement at the federal level as well.