A federal appeals court is to hear arguments Wednesday on whether a first-of-its-kind law that prohibits licensed mental health professionals in California from offering therapies aimed at making gay and lesbian teenagers straight violates the civil rights of practitioners and parents.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering two legal challenges to the ban on "sexual orientation change efforts'' that was passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall.
The ban, which was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, was put on hold by the 9th Circuit pending resolution of the closely watched cases. It spurred similar legislation still being considered by lawmakers in New Jersey.
Special Report: Should Gay Conversion Therapy be Legal?
They put their hands, covered with anointing oil, and placed them on his body as they began to pray. It wasn’t just any prayer -- the men went from English to Spanish to speaking in tongues for nearly four hours.
“It was exhausting. I reached a point in the process where I had flown out of my chair and I was writhing on the floor, speaking in the spiritual language of tongues.”
This is how Vincent Cervantes of West Hollywood described his “deliverance” from being gay, better known as a gay exorcism. He was 18 and depressed -- he was a Christian in the Pentecostal church and homosexual feelings made him a sinner destined for hell, that’s all he said he could think about. He added he cried so much he thought he’d never be able to shed another tear.
But just one week later, the attraction for men resurfaced. Desperation soon followed.
“I just could not rationalize wanting to live my life like that every day, thinking and knowing I was going to end up in hell,” Cervantes said. “So I decided I was going to send myself there sooner. I planned a suicide for myself because I didn’t want that for my life.”
Cervantes, now 25, has become a social activist and blogger. He said exorcisms are an extreme last resort for some gay people, many times after he or she undergoes reparative therapy, also known as gay conversion therapy. The process focuses on eliminating one’s homosexual desires or “same-sex attraction.”
It’s now become part of a legal battle in the state of California. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that would have made reparative therapy for minors illegal in the state. It was set to go into effect Jan. 1, until one group sued the state. The U.S. 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case Wednesday before making its ruling.
In most cases of reparative therapy, the premise is that something made the person gay. For Cervantes, it was a failed relationship with his father. It was the same thing Peter Drake heard.
“The implication of the therapy is that by better understanding your childhood and perhaps your relationship with your father, and abuse if it was there, maybe developing a stronger male self- esteem, you can actually no longer be same-sex attracted,” Drake said.
The San Francisco father-of-two was married for 28 years, but he always knew there was something he was fighting. To compensate for attraction to other men, he said he became a very conservative Evangelical Christian who spent a lot of his free time at church. Drake said he went to reparative therapy every week for three years. Like Cervantes, Drake said he became suicidal after the therapy.
So what went on behind closed doors? Drake said it began like normal therapy would -- he talked, his licensed therapist listened.
“Here’s the dangerous part of reparative therapy. You’re going down this path, probably with fairly, technique-wise, well-trained therapist, and building trust and rapport and transference,” Drake explained. “Then all of a sudden it’s, ‘I think we’ve done enough of that. Now, it’s time to get to your problem and start trying to fix your problem.’”
He said after talking about hardships with his father growing up, it was time to change some of his behaviors and act more “masculine.”
“Play more sports, try to lust after women, buy some girly magazines,” Drake said, recalling his therapist’s advice.
Cervantes heard much of the same.
“I would learn things like how to change the oil in my car, how to change my tires,” he said.
The two said there are more extreme measures out there, known as “aversion” techniques, usually not performed under reparative therapy, but sometimes methods that precede or follow reparative therapy. They named public shaming, mock funerals when a gay person is told he will contract AIDs and die, and even touching exercises. Cervantes described one particularly notorious: electroshock therapy.
“They would attach probes to their chest, primarily to their nipples and then to their ankles, but also to their genitalia, and then flash pictures of naked men, or play porn, and shock them.”
Drake still believes reparative therapy is the most hurtful. “Not only was it not successful, it was deeply damaging to me, partly because I expected to change and I didn’t.”
But some disagree. David Pickup said reparative therapy was successful for him after he went through it for ten years. Pickup added that the therapy gets a bad reputation because of all the aversion techniques that are sometimes tied to it, but not a part of it.
“Reparative therapy, first and foremost, gets rid of any and all shame that a man may have for having homosexual feelings, “ Pickup explained. “A lot of gender identity shame or inferiority starts at very young ages, at sexual and gender developmental years, so we go into these wounds and unmet needs through emotional connectedness.”
Pickup believed in the therapy so much, he said he picked up his own license six years ago. He is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist based in Encino, a city outside of Los Angeles. His focus is reparative therapy. Pickup said he’s seen roughly 300 clients during the last six years with typically the same pattern: a homosexual attraction that stems from childhood trauma, mainly two types. The first is what he said he experienced when he was five-years-old: sexual abuse. The second is the more common cause, according to Pickup, which is a scar left by a bad relationship – usually with dad.
“A severe loss of the father experience in terms of affection, approval, and affirmation,” Pickup said. “So within that child usually from the time they’re a little boy, they don’t get enough affirmation of their male identity. They don’t get enough love.”
After the therapy, Pickup said most clients are free of feelings of guilt and shame, though they may still feel some homosexual desires lingering.
“Sometimes homosexual feelings come up," he said, "but like one of my clients said the other day, the whole reparative thing feels a lot better than sex with men.”
Pickup also argued that this therapy should be available for “ex-gays” – men and women who may have once dealt with homosexual feelings, desires and attractions, but do not believe they are naturally built that way. He emphasized it’s a tool these people should be free to have.
Nick Ladany, dean of Santa Clara University School of Education and Psychological Counseling, said there is no doubt in his mind that everything about the therapy is wrong and unethical.
“The bottom line is it is a form of shame-based therapy: you are not good enough because you are gay,” Ladany said. “I would say that anytime they’re doing reparative therapy, it is a form of mental torture. It’s a form of hurting someone intentionally because of one’s own belief system that who you are is not Ok.”
Ladany also believes that this therapy is one of the most harmful things someone can undergo. “I would argue that a very subtle form of therapy that leads people to believe they should not be gay is a more insidious kind of approach toward a therapeutic prevention, it can actually do more harm because you don’t see it coming.”
For Drake and Cervantes, it took years to overcome guilt and shame that built inside them. It was a struggle to completely unlock what they had emotionally boxed away for years. Both said they were saved by love.
For Drake, it was love and honesty from his daughter, who told him she was a lesbian when he was still in reparative therapy. “That began my journey into my own healing.”
For Cervantes, it was an email he got from a friend the morning he said he was planning to kill himself in what would appear to be a drunk-driving accident.
“The message was about God still loving me,” Cervantes said. “There are people in this world who care and love for every person, regardless of who they love. They are there to help.”
If the court sides with the state of California, professionals caught practicing the therapy could lose his or her license. The states of New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar laws. The decision from the U.S. 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals is not expected for several weeks. Both sides told NBC Bay Area that if the decision doesn’t go their way, the next stop is the Supreme Court.