Ten Friend-of-the-Court Briefs Describe Severe Harms Caused By Therapists’ Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation

(San Francisco, CA, February 8, 2013)—A diverse group of prominent mental health professional organizations and social services providers, scholars of constitutional and health care law, civil liberties and religious organizations, the City and County of San Francisco, and individuals and family members filed ten friend-of-the-court briefs this week urging the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to uphold a 2012 California law that prohibits licensed therapists from trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender expression.

The law, which was signed by California Governor Jerry Brown on September 29, 2012, prohibits state-licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of a patient under 18 years old. Anti-LGBTQ legal groups challenged the law in October, 2012, primarily representing California therapists who engage in these practices. Those lawsuits are now before the Ninth Circuit, which will hear arguments on April 17 to determine whether to block the law from going into effect while the therapists’ lawsuits proceed. The law was scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2013, but is temporarily on hold while the Ninth Circuit considers the cases.

On Wednesday, the California Psychological Association, the California Division of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the National Association of Social Workers urged the court to permit the law to take effect because the leading mental health professional organizations “agree that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and have advised against practices that attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation.” These and other mental health organizations supported the legislation and worked closely with state Senator Ted Lieu, the bill’s author, to ensure that the law provides clear guidance to state licensed therapists.

Dr. Jack Drescher, one of the nation’s leading experts on the harms caused by efforts to change sexual orientation, submitted a brief summarizing the findings of a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on sexual orientation change efforts that was conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2009. The brief concludes that these practices “pose an unacceptable risk to minors,” who are “particularly vulnerable to harm from stigma.”

Twelve regional and national organizations that work with LGBTQ youth, including the Children’s Law Center of California, Legal Services for Children, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Trevor Project, and others also filed a brief supporting the law. The brief recounts the first-hand experiences of youth who have suffered severe mental and physical health problems as a result of attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender expression, including suicide attempts, cutting and other self-injurious behaviors, severe anxiety, and depression. For example, the brief describes a young woman who called the Trevor Project’s helpline who, after seeing a therapist who tried to change her sexual orientation, “has attempted suicide several times” and “prays that she will die in an accident.”

Another brief tells the stories of individuals who underwent efforts to change their sexual orientation and as a result were plagued for years by problems such as severe anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug abuse. The brief includes the story of Kirk Murphy, who as a child in the early 1970s was subjected to an experiment designed to prevent children from growing up to be gay by the University of California at Los Angeles. Murphy’s family was counseled to reward “masculine” behavior and punish “feminine” behavior. Murphy’s sister recalls that these techniques severely damaged her brother, making him withdrawn, isolated and self-conscious. Murphy, a gay man, ultimately died by suicide at the age of 38.

Prominent scholars in constitutional law and health law, as well as the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, also filed briefs supporting the law. The scholars explain that California’s prohibition of these discredited practices is one of many examples of state regulation of medical treatment to ensure that medical professionals comply with the standards of their profession and do not harm patients. The scholars argue that such regulations are both constitutional and vitally necessary because meaningful oversight of the health and safety of medical care would be impossible without them.

The City and County of San Francisco filed a brief describing how these practices contribute to high rates of homelessness and other serious health problems among LGBTQ youth, many of whom flock to San Francisco after being rejected by their families. Religious organizations and leaders, including California Faith for Equality and the California Council of Churches, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California, among others, also submitted a brief asking the court to uphold the California law.

“The friend-of-the-court briefs filed in this case underscore the unified message of all leading medical, mental health, and child welfare advocates—efforts to change a child’s sexual orientation are cruel, damaging, and have no place in the provision of mental health care,” said Shannon Minter, Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “These briefs make an overwhelming case for the necessity for this law, which is now being looked to as a model by a number of other states.”

“We are grateful for this outpouring of support from some of the most respected medical and mental health practitioners and organizations in California and throughout the country,” said Equality California Executive Director John O’Connor. “No one can fail to understand the need for this law after reading these unforgettable first-hand accounts of the despair, self-injury, and suicidal behavior caused by these discredited practices. These briefs paint a vivid picture of why the state must take action to protect youth from these practices and to stop licensed therapists from inflicting so much damage on young people. We thank Senator Ted Lieu for his vision in working to enact this life-saving legislation.”

Last fall, Equality California filed a successful motion to intervene in one of the lawsuits in order to defend the law alongside California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who represents the State of California defendants. Equality California is represented in the cases by NCLR and the law firm of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP.

Law firms and legal organizations representing groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the California law included: ACLU Foundation Of Northern California, Inc.; Arnold & Porter LLP; Covington & Burling LLP; Foley & Lardner LLP; Dennis J. Herrera, City Attorney of San Francisco; Kirkland & Ellis LLP; Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP; Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP; Jon B. Eisenberg, Esq.; Eric Alan Isaacson, Esq.; Stacey M. Kaplan, Esq.; and Barry R. Levy, Esq.

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