Conservatives have a new trick up their sleeve in their fight against bills banning conversion therapy: Don’t say they’re about conversion therapy.
In a Wednesday op-ed posted on The Daily Signal, Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council referred to California legislation outlawing orientation change efforts on individuals of any age as a “Must Stay Gay” bill.
“AB 2943 poses a threat not only to freedom of speech, but also to freedom of religion,” said Sprigg, who serves as senior fellow for policy studies at the anti-LGBTQ hate group. “While some secular therapists and nonreligious clients have achieved success with sexual orientation change efforts, there is no doubt that most clients seeking such care, and most therapists and counselors providing it, have religious motivations.”
He concluded that AB 2943 is “a perfect storm of leftist political correctness that attacks free speech and freedom of religion.”
The “Must Stay Gay” label has become increasingly common among religious conservatives opposed to AB 2943, which passed the California Senate last Thursday following a 25-11 vote and is currently headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. If passed, the first-of-its-kind bill would classify conversion therapy as “fraud” under the state’s consumer protection laws.
After AB 2943 was introduced by out Assemblymember Evan Low in February, conservatives argued the law effectively forces LGBTQ people to “stay gay” against their will. Thus, even someone who wishes to “cure” their same-sex attractions would be unable to seek treatment.
Instead of making conversion therapy about a discredited treatment likened to torture, it rebrands the debate as concerning individual choice.
“We still have a right to privacy and liberty in this country, and mandating that someone live with desires that trouble them, regardless of how they treat other people, is absolute and total fascism,” claimed Elizabeth Johnston, also known as the Activist Mommy, in an April blog post.
“This is nothing short of tyranny,” Johnston continued. “Laws like this are why the Pilgrims sought out a new land where they might worship and live as they chose, why our founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and why hundreds and thousands of men and women have fought, bled, and died to preserve American liberty.”
Conservative radio host Michael Brown, who is often credited with coining the “Must Stay Gay” moniker in reference to conversion therapy bans, called California’s legislation an “absolute outrage,” which “must be opposed vigorously.”
“This defies all logic and can be seen only for what it is: a frontal assault on our freedom to self-determination,” Brown said.
But LGBTQ advocates working to outlaw conversion therapy say bills like California’s merely recognize what nearly every leading medical association has already concluded: Orientation change efforts don’t work.
“No matter what those who practice conversion therapy call their practice, it is important to recognize that the dangerous and discredited practice doesn’t become less harmful with new words,” claimed Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, in a statement to INTO.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Medical Association, and American Psychiatric Association have condemned orientation change efforts as “dangerous and ineffective.”
Conversion therapy “cannot and will not change sexual orientation,” claimed the National Association of Social Workers in a 2000 position paper.
The harms of conversion therapy have been recognized by a growing number of states: Fourteen states and D.C. have passed statewide legislation outlawing the practice. These states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
But in the face of a national movement to outlaw “gay cure” therapy, advocates warn the conservative rebrand of conversion bans may have a dangerous effect.
“Parents and LGBTQ youth may be harmed even further when they are unsuspectingly supporting an unfounded medical practice,” claimed Brinton, who is a survivor of conversion therapy. “Being duped into conversion therapy by lies of omission could be catastrophic.”
Carolyn Reyes, youth policy counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, claimed that the attempt to obfuscate the practice’s harms illustrates that “conversion therapy has no legitimate defense.”
“Laws that protect consumers from conversion therapy are exactly like laws that protect consumers from ineffective and harmful drugs,” Reyes said in an email to INTO, adding that “Must Stay Gay” jargon is “a typical Trump-era lie designed to mislead legislators and justify practices that harm and exploit vulnerable people.”
This isn’t the first time conservatives have attempted to pivot away from the conversion therapy label.
In a list of Frequently Asked Questions released last year, the U.K.-based Christian ministry Core Issues complained that conversion therapy is a “disparaging nickname” given to a set of practices that “were largely discontinued 50 years ago.”
“Many different ‘talking’ therapies are used to assist individuals who are troubled by patterns of thought and behaviour, which disrupts their quality of life,” the nonprofit organization said. “While society is now largely accepting of homosexual practice, some people are troubled by their experience of same-sex attraction, perhaps for reasons of religious faith, or wanting to maintain a faithful heterosexual marriage; others may be concerned about the health risks associated with a gay lifestyle.”
“They, therefore, want to explore the possibility of reducing those feelings and moving away from those behaviors,” it continued. “There are methods of therapy and counseling which many have found helpful in achieving this result.”
In truth, more than 698,000 people in the U.S. are survivors of conversion therapy. The term refers to a very loose set of practices which can range from shock therapy to in-person counseling and aversion treatments (e.g., snapping a rubber band on one’s wrist to avoid unwanted same-sex thoughts).
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