We’re republishing this piece to mark Spirit Day, October 15, 2015, and the new report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) called “Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth.” The report provides an in-depth review of research and a consensus among experts, including the American Psychological Association, in finding conversion therapy to be harmful, and instead provides examples of appropriate resources and therapeutic approaches.
The two women who came to Queer Nation in the early 1990s, like me, were young queers. Unlike me, their families had sent them to therapists who believed they could cure these women of their queerness. One of them, after months of torment from her church-sanctioned therapist, had run away. Her family told her that she could come home only if she returned to the therapist. She arrived in Los Angeles, attended a few Saturday night Queer Nation meetings, and then she vanished. I don’t know if she went back to the therapist and tried to imitate the practicing heterosexual her family insisted she become, or if she kept running. The other young woman was sent to an inpatient treatment facility that promised to cure her of her “disease of homosexuality.” Trembling, in a shaky voice, she talked about nightmares, about relentless shaming and desperation, and about how she felt her only choices had been to kill herself or run away. After a failed suicide attempt, she ran away. And kept on running.
California Senate Bill 1172 – Banning Conversion Therapy for Minors
When we educators and therapists talk about bullying, the discourse is usually about peers and what happens in schools. What we don’t talk about is the invisible line between bullying, coercion, and abuse in families who so adamantly deny the lives of their queer young people by enlisting the “help” of therapists who promise a form of conversion therapy that falsely claims to cure people of their homosexuality. Gaylesta (a professional organization of psychotherapists of which I am a member), along with NCLR, Equality California, and Lambda Legal co-sponsored Senate Bill 1172, authored by Senator Ted Lieu, which would bar the use of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy on anyone under 18 years old–even if that person’s parent or guardian asks for it or consents to it. SB 1172, the first bill in the nation to attempt to outlaw the use of conversion therapy for minors, is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
In the years I have been in clinical practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen the vestiges and fragments of failed conversion therapies. Clients – men, women and transfolks — who remind me of grown-up versions of the two lost women, tell stories of attempted and failed conversion. They come to my office overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, and histories of suicidality. And even those with politicized understandings of the abuse they suffered at the hands of the discredited converters still have difficulty shaking off the now deeply internalized messages of shame and of fundamental wrongness.
In each course I teach to graduate and postgraduate clinicians on queer and social justice psychotherapies, we have the same long ethics conversations about reparative therapies, family systems, and parental control. My students and I agree that reparative therapy is useless at best, and most often, soul-crushing at worst. Dr. Robert Spitzer, who wrote the 2003 study positing that reparative therapy had possibilities of success, has recently apologized for its inherent flaws, and the ways the study has been used by proponents of conversion therapies.
Inevitably, a student will ask about the role of the family in making decisions for its own young people. If we were the therapist for the young person, would we have to consent to allowing the parent or guardian to send the minor to a conversion therapist when what we would want to do is report them for child endangerment? SB 1172 takes this dilemma out of the hands of clinicians by taking a clear stance against the inherent abuse of conversion therapies and banning them for use with minors.
California Assembly Bill 2356 – Equal Access to Fertility Services for LGBT Families
A second piece of legislation, also headed to Gov. Jerry Brown, affects queer self-determination at a different place in the lifespan trajectory. Right now, a heterosexual couple who can’t conceive at home can go to their doctor for an intrauterine insemination. A lesbian couple, or a single woman, who have also been trying at home can go to a doctor with the same sperm they’ve been using, but will have to go through the “donor” process, which likely includes freezing, testing, and time. The estimated cost to that lesbian couple beyond the cost to the heterosexual couple is roughly $4,000 to $5,000, and includes a six-month wait while the sperm is quarantined and then tested again.
A new Assembly Bill – AB 2356, introduced by Assembly member Nancy
Skinner (CA Assembly District 14)– that some are calling Leland’s Law, after its primary author Leland Traiman (founder of Alameda’s Rainbow Flag Health Services, which specializes in working with gay men and lesbians through the conception process, and is also the only sperm bank in the country to actively recruit gay men as sperm donors), would rectify this. The bill also expands the definition of “sexually intimate partner” to include a known or designated donor to whose sperm the recipient has previously been exposed in a nonmedical setting (i.e., home insemination) in an attempt to conceive.
This is especially important for lesbians and single women who historically have fewer economic resources and therefore less access to medical assistance family making.
One of the specializations in my clinical practice is queer family planning. Frequently new clients come in with the agonizing dilemma of having to lie to their physician about the structure of their family in order to access treatment.
To avoid the time and expense of the donor process, the partner intending to get pregnant could present the known donor as their sexual partner. This would mean declaring the known donor to be a cultural “father” instead of a “donor” and excluding the lesbian partner. This is a radically different legal relationship, and a dilemma in lesbian couples with known donors, because while a non-birth queer parent can now be named on a baby’s birth certificate as a parent, a child can only have two legal parents. Therefore a known sperm donor designated as a sexual partner in order to receive affordable fertility services would exclude the actual second lesbian (or transgender) parent. These dilemmas – the choice between affordable care, and honesty about family systems and relationships, set up painful dynamics in couples of privileging biological parenthood over the nonbiological partner even when the partners are equally committed to parenthood.
One client, an adult heterosexual, told a story about coming from a family where the client’s mother was a closeted lesbian who chose to make her life with a man because she thought it was the only way she could have a child. The client talked about growing up with a depressed, withdrawn, and occasionally suicidal mother–and no sense of there being deep connection between mom and dad. Though the client was glad to have had a mother so committed to becoming a parent, they wondered how life could have been different for both of them if their mom could have chosen a life partner out of love, and not out of the best chances of successful fertility.
And lest we begin to see this issue as one pertaining to lesbians and single women only, and not of concern to men, the laws around donors and testing are born of AIDS panic. Recently, a lesbian contacted a research and teaching hospital in California affiliated with a prominent university, and asked about using a gay sperm donor. The administrator she spoke with responded, “well, you could, I suppose. But why would you want to? Gay men carry diseases.”
This is the intersection of AIDS panic and the alarming and terrifying move toward limiting women’s reproductive autonomy and freedom. Leland’s Law, or AB 2356, is the legislative and cultural intersection of queer bodily integrity and reproductive rights.
LGBTQ Mental Health and National Suicide Prevention Week
These legislative issues have deep and lasting psychological and emotional impact. When I think about the necessity, the basic right, of empowered family planning, or the ability of young queers to define and assert their own identities without fear of medical intervention attempting to “cure” them, I am reminded of the cost of the lack of these securities. The number of my clients and community members who have grappled with suicidality in the face of the cultural denials of their identities and chosen families probably outweighs the ones who have not at some point contemplated, or attempted suicide.
This week has been National Suicide Prevention Week. In the LGBT populations section of the Surgeon General’s report on suicide prevention, institutional discrimination and public policies are clearly stated as stressors which can lead to suicidality, and culturally appropriate care part of the deterrent:
Suicidal behaviors in LGBT populations appear to be related to “minority stress,” which stems from the cultural and social prejudice attached to minority sexual orientation and gender identity. This stress includes individual experiences of prejudice or discrimination, such as family rejection, harassment, bullying, violence, and victimization. Increasingly recognized as an aspect of minority stress is “institutional discrimination” resulting from laws and public policies that create inequities or omit LGBT people from benefits and protections afforded others. Individual and institutional discrimination have been found to be associated with social isolation, low self-esteem, negative sexual/gender identity, and depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. These negative outcomes, rather than minority sexual orientation or gender identity per se, appear to be the key risk factors for LGBT suicidal ideation and behavior. …
Factors that foster and promote resilience in LGBT people include family acceptance, connection to caring others and a sense of safety, positive sexual/gender identity, and the availability of quality, culturally appropriate mental health treatment.
What’s at stake in both AB 1172 and SB 2356 is the bodily, psychological, and familial self-determination of LGBTQQI folks who fall outside of the dominant and expected narrative of identity development and kinship choice. This is our chance. To stand up for the reproductive freedom of all queer family configurations seeking medical assistance in the creation of the next generation. And to stand up for the queer young people we were, who we could have been, and the ones who need us still.
Update: This piece was originally published in early Sept, 2012 on LGBTPOV.com.
In late Sept 2012 Gov. Brown has signed into law SB 1172, the landmark bill which will protect LGBTQ minors from anti-gay conversion therapies, and AB 2356 which will help ensure equal access to fertility treatments for lesbian, bisexual, and single women. These are important steps, both symbolic and with deep policy implications, which assert the bodily and psychological self-determination of LGBTQ individuals and families.