When James Guay was 12, he went into a Christian bookstore to look for information on what was wrong with him. He found just one book on homosexuality -- "on how to change it," he recalled. When he brought it to the counter, the clerk asked if it was for him. "She said she would pray for me," he said.
A few years later Guay had a nervous breakdown and told his parents what was distressing him. His father, a pastor, helped him find a licensed "ex-gay" psychologist. The psychologist said he had been gay, but now was married to a woman. He told Guay that change was possible. "It was this newfound hope," Guay said. Within six months to a year, the therapist promised him, Guay could overcome his attraction to men and learn to be attracted to women.
Two months ago, Guay testified at a hearing on a new bill in the California State Legislature that would ban the "gay cure," as this type of therapy is known. The bill is the first of its kind in the U.S., and observers expect it to pass by the end of August. If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs it, licensed therapists who try to change the sexual orientation of minors will run the risk of losing their licenses.
"I wanted parents to understand that this therapy is crazy," said Sen. Ted Lieu, the California Democrat who authored the bill.
The passage of SB 1172 would be the latest in a series of recent actions signaling a widespread condemnation of the practice. Almost all mainstream mental health organizations, from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Psychological Association, have renounced it. The World Health Organization has released a statement saying that such methods "lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being" of patients. Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist who published a widely cited study supporting the "gay cure" practice in 2003, recently apologized for his work in the journal where the original paper appeared.
"I believe I owe the gay community an apology," he wrote.
For more than three decades, one of the leading forces behind the practice of attempting to change sexual orientation was Exodus International, a nonprofit group. In June, the head of Exodus International declared at its annual meeting that there was no cure for homosexuality and that the promise of one offered false hope to gays. Just a few years before, he and his wife had starred in advertisements saying, "Change is possible."
Still, there aren't any scientific studies showing that the practice actually causes harm. Anecdotal reports of depression, even suicide, abound, and a task force convened by the American Psychological Association found the practice to be both harmful and ineffective. But when the government regulates a behavior, like driving without a seatbelt or smoking, they can usually draw on volumes of data demonstrating that the behavior hurts people. That isn't the case here, and the few remaining supporters of the practice stress this fact.
David Pruden, the vice president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a group whose website proclaims that it "offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality," sees the bill as a "solution in search of a problem."
He maintains that there are people who can, "with the help of a well trained therapist, move through a process where they grow away from homosexual attraction and move towards heterosexual attraction." He gave the example of a child who is molested by an adult of the same sex. "One suggestion would be you're confused, you're not gay. Now this bill is saying that for a therapist to suggest to someone that they're not gay is somehow illegal or would be wrong."
Mainstream psychological organizations in California were initially opposed to the law for similar reasons, but they withdrew their opposition after working with Sen. Lieu on the language of the bill. "Quite naturally there are many times when an adolescent is exploring their sexual identity and they may want to talk to a therapist about that," said Jo Linder-Crow, the executive director of the California Psychological Association. "We wanted to make sure that legitimate therapy would not be caught up in the definition used in the bill."
The idea of a gay cure goes back to a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and "sodomy" a crime. In the years after World War II, as therapy became a widespread practice in the U.S., the idea of psychiatric treatment for homosexuality was seen as a humane alternative to institutionalization or jail. In the '70s, the American Psychiatric Institution removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, and most psychiatrists and psychologists abandoned the practice. Around the same time, though, Exodus International was formed. Christian groups picked up where mainstream therapists had left off.
It's hard to say why the "gay cure" practice has received so much attention in just the last few months. "People have had these concerns about it for a long time," said Clinton Anderson, the director of the American Psychological Association's office for LGBT issues. "What may be different is a sense that there's a political will, at least in certain places, to do something more signifiant about it."
Anderson says there's no way of knowing how widespread the practice is, or how many psychiatrists perform it. The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, for its part, does not divulge its membership numbers, thought it does say that its members operate in all 50 states and in a number of other countries.
Guay, who now runs his own therapeutic practice for people who have been scarred by experiences like his, spent a year with the ex-gay therapist and then got involved with Exodus International, attending several of their conferences. He started dating a woman, but it didn't work out. "I ended that relationship and began a relationship with a man," he said.
It was only at that point that he had what a therapist might call a breakthrough."'Oh wait,'" he said, recalling his thinking at the time. "'This feels authentic and right.'"