At the end of August, two therapists in New Jersey sued the state over its recently signed ban on “conversion therapy,” a practice which purports to turn gay people straight. In new affidavits filed with the court last week, a 15-year-old boy and his parents say that conversion therapy had been life-saving for him. They ask that he be allowed to continue trying to rid himself of his “unwanted same-sex attractions,” which they believe are the cause of his suicidal thoughts.
The therapists suing the state, Dr. Tara King and Dr. Ron Newman, were joined in the suit by the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, the main supporter of conversion therapy these days and the group they both belong to, as well as the American Association of Christian Counselors. They’re all represented by the Liberty Counsel, who often represent anti-abortion and anti-gay causes, and who are fighting a similar ban in California. And while most of the case has been about whether the New Jersey ban restricts free speech or prevents harmful pseudo-scientific treatments, these affidavits shine a light on the motivations of people who seek out conversion therapy.
Although the Liberty Counsel argues otherwise, the scientific credibility of conversion therapy isn’t really in question. The practice has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, which questioned both its “ethics and effectiveness,” adding, “Homosexuality is not a mental disorder.” That was in 1997. The American Counseling Association followed suit in 2000, writing, “The potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
But the Liberty Counsel argues that the ban restricts both free speech and religious expression. In his affidavit, the 15-year-old boy, going by the pseudonym John Doe, argues that his right to undergo conversion therapy is bound up in his religious freedom.
“No one has forced or coerced me to attend counseling with my therapist,” he writes. “At the end of the day, I am the one who wants to continue treatment for my unwanted same-sex attractions.”
John Doe says he first started to experience “Gender-Identity Disorder (G.I.D.) and Same-Sex Attraction” when he was around nine years old. “When I was 10, I started feeling like I wanted to commit suicide because I didn’t like myself,” he writes. “I thought I would like myself much better if I were a girl.” When he was 12 or 13, he says, he started to experience “crushes,” (quotes his) on men he saw in magazines.
“I hated myself because I wasn’t as good as these guys,” he writes. “These guys were muscular and athletic, and I knew I wasn’t. I thought if I were a girl, I wouldn’t have to compete with them anymore.” Self-hatred caused panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, sleeplessness, and suicidal thoughts.
“My life was spinning out of control, and I was so depressed, I was thinking about killing myself around the clock,” Doe adds. “My parents knew I was suicidal, so after my most extreme outburst to that point and when they found pictures of guys under my mattress, they took me to a new therapist.”
His new therapist focused on his same-sex attractions, telling him they were “really the manifestation of underlying emotional issues and and childhood wounds that were caused by unmet needs I had as a child,” Doe says. The therapist also told him that “fully recognizing [his] heterosexual potential” might be “a lifelong process.”
“My religious belief and conviction is that homosexuality is wrong,” Doe writes. “I wanted to address that value-conflict because my same-sex attractions are contrary to the religious values that I hold…I want to resolve my sexual attractions so that I act in conformity with my religious beliefs.” With the new therapist, “I can really say I am improving. I now have a normal “guy” voice, I don’t shave my body hair anymore, and I definitely have a better relationship with my father. I do not have thoughts of suicide anymore and my confidence as a guy is starting to build.”
Doe’s mother and father make the same points. Jane Doe recounts her worry and fear starting when, as a young child, her son began drawing the Little Mermaid on scraps of paper and dressing up in “princess costumes.” With his current therapist, she says, “We have noticed significant changes in our son, such as the fact that he exhibits more traditional male characteristics. Our son has told me and his father that he no longer experiences his unwanted same-sex attractions as frequently as he did prior to counseling.”
Jack Doe, the boy’s father, says that in therapy the family has “learned together there is no such thing as a ‘perfect man.'” With his counseling, Jack Doe says, his son is “establishing healthy friendships with other teen boys,” and is “actively involved with martial arts and swimming while pursuing his artistic interests.”
“The current New Jersey legislation makes it illegal for us to seek and continue within New Jersey the type of therapy that has been so helpful for my son’s journey towards becoming a young man who is happy, healthy, and has high self-esteem,” the senior Doe concludes. “For the health of my son, this legislation has to be overturned.”
If California is any guide, that’s not likely to be the case. Despite the Liberty Counsel’s intensive legal efforts, the conversion therapy ban there was recently upheld. Both cases may ultimately wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Liberty Counsel’s entire, very long motion follows on the next page; the affidavits from the Doe family begin on page 109.