In Massachusetts, Controversy Over a Proposed Ban on Gay Counseling

by Will Allen

The Christian Post reported yesterday that the Massachusetts General Court held its first hearing on a bill that would ban licensed professionals from conducting “sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts” involving patients under the age of 18. The bill, introduced by Representative Carl M. Sciortino (D., Medford) and available in full here, targets reparative-therapy operations (also referred to as conversion therapy), which typically aim to help children who report homosexual attractions to eliminate those attractions and become heterosexual.

However, the Massachusetts Family Institute has expressed concern that, if the bill becomes law, it may be used to more broadly target those who advise children against an actively homosexual lifestyle — even if they don’t practice “conversion therapy” or believe that a person can change his sexual orientation. The Institute’s Andrew Beckwith told the Post, “The reason we oppose this bill is that it is extremely broad. It doesn’t even really mention reparative therapy but uses the term ‘sexual orientation change efforts.’”

When I spoke with Beckwith this afternoon, he reiterated his concern about the bill’s broadness, telling me that he believes it may empower the state to punish any licensed counselor merely for referring a patient to an unlicensed individual — a pastor, for instance — who in turn advocates some form of “sexual orientation change.” He also referred specifically to the phrase “behavioral expression” in line (1)(A) of the bill, reproduced here in context:

“Sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts” means any practice by a licensed professional that seeks or purports to impose change of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Such term–
(1) Includes practices which
(A) to change behavioral expression of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity

According to Beckwith, the definition of practices intended to “change behavioral expression” could extend beyond reparative therapy to include almost any attempt to constrain or alter a child’s sexual behavior — even, for instance, to encourage celibacy, the approach taken by the Catholic Church and other Christian churches in helping members cope with homosexual attractions. In the worst-case scenario for civil liberties, a licensed counselor who recommends celibacy to a teenager struggling with same-sex attractions could be sanctioned. “What we’ve seen with these types of laws . . . the way they get actually implemented and interpreted just from the tactical level is very aggressive,” Beckwith warned. “So if there is any leeway or margin for error, it will be used.”

I also spoke with Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, Representative Sciortino’s legislative aide, who disputed the Massachusetts Family Institute’s characterization of the bill and emphatically stated that it is only intended to ban licensed professionals from engaging in reparative therapy. She told me that she did not think the bill would have an impact on referrals to pastors or other non-licensed counselors: “Our bill only deals with state-licensed professionals who may be engaging in these type of practices with minors. . . . If clinicians refer the child out for pastoral counseling, I don’t believe the scope of our bill could affect that.” When I asked Freedman-Gurspan whether the reference to “behavioral expression” might affect those counseling celibacy, she replied:

No, celibacy itself is not a form of “reparative therapy.” If folks read the bill, it is about dealing with unscientifically proven methods that erroneously attempt to alter a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, usually to prevent them from identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual or as a transgender person. What the opponents of this bill fail to inform the public about is that reparative therapy operates on the assumption that there is only one “correct” way to be — that being gay or transgender is somehow a defect. We flat out reject this assumption and view the tactics of reparative therapy as pseudo-science, which children should not be exposed to.

One final note: The bill also includes language specifically exempting activities that

(A) provide acceptance, support, and understanding of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression and the facilitation of an individual’s coping, social support, and identity exploration and development, including interventions to prevent or address unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices, or

(B) provide acceptance, support, or understanding of an individual’s gender expression or the facilitation of an individual’s coping, social support, and identity exploration and development.

from the prohibition. Needless to say, such activities are not included in even the broadest definition of reparative therapy. So why would the bill’s sponsors feel a need to include specific exemptions?

I put this question to Freedman-Gurspan, who responded, “We put in the exemption language so that all other legitimate scientifically proven methods used by psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, etc. working with children can of course continue to operate.” She added, “To be clear, we’re not trying to shut down legitimate children’s mental health, including those who work with LGBT youth and those struggling with their identity. What we say is, these tactics — reparative therapy — may not be employed with children.”

The Corner

The one and only.