There was a time in America where it was very clear to almost everybody that homosexuality was a mental illness. This was not a controversial position. It was the default position. It took decades of cultural interactions, explorations, investigations, and activism to reverse this default position. And it's not even over. For many folks, it's not a settled matter.
Even as the needle of acceptance has moved from red to green for gays and lesbians, there's still a lot of work for transgender folks to catch up, though even they are seeing a more hospitable society than they were just a few years ago.
And so conversion therapy is still a thing that exists. Conversion therapy, discredited and dismissed by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, claims to cure people of their homosexual urges or their feelings of being born of the wrong sex. Furthermore, experts decry conversion therapy as dangerous, creating additional mental anxieties in gay and transgender patients. And these patients are frequently minors ordered to therapy by unaccepting parents, creating a situation where vulnerable, confused teens are being forced into a treatment they probably wouldn't choose for themselves and that may make their emotional problems even worse.
Some states have started stepping in, banning licensed therapists from offering conversion therapy. These bans have been challenged on First Amendment grounds, but so far the courts have allowed it, and the Supreme Court has declined to take up challenges. Pivoting off the extremely public suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, who stepped in front of a truck on a highway last year after being subjected to conversion therapy, activists posted an online petition at the White House calling for a federal ban on such treatments.
Last night Valerie Jarrett responded to the petition on behalf of the White House. The administration agrees that conversion therapy is terrible, and here's what they had to say about the possibility of a federal ban:
While a national ban would require congressional action, we are hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken by these states will lead to broader action that this Administration would support.
It would be extremely dangerous for the federal government, via federal legislation, to attempt to declare what sort of therapy is legal. There's a reason I started this blog post by pointing out America's historical and cultural responses to homosexuality and transgenderism. The government was frequently the cause of distress for these teens, not their defenders.
There's an inclination here to say, "Well, now the government's got it all straightened out." But why on earth would anybody want to go in that direction after history shows? What sort of slippery slopes could deeper federal regulation of therapeutic practices lead to? Consider that the science is hardly settled over the origins of transgender feelings. We've still barely scratched the surface, frankly, according to the American Psychological Association:
There is no single explanation for why some people are transgender. The diversity of transgender expression and experiences argues against any simple or unitary explanation. Many experts believe that biological factors such as genetic influences and prenatal hormone levels, early experiences, and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the development of transgender identities.
It's absurd to say that the transgender experience is all in somebody's head or that it's not real, or cling to the idea that it's a mental illness out of hand. I have known transgender people both before and after their transitions and have seen them leading much happier lives.
But it's also equally absurd to never push or poke at any individual's claim to a transgender identity. A gender transition is a huge, huge deal, and therapists need to be able to make sure their clients hammer out their concepts of who they are before they make some very major decisions. A small number of those who pursue surgery to change their sex regret it. The number is statistically small (and sometimes overstated)—unless you happen to be one of them.
We should have some very fundamental worries about the government regulating speech because it happens to be connected to a government-licensed private occupation. Looking even further, we should consider the implications in a society that is increasingly acting as though people's good feelings and sense of self-esteem are worthy of taking legal precedence over liberty and free speech. I couldn't care less if actual providers of conversion or reparative therapies go the way of the brontosaurus. We should be more concerned that therapists would become afraid to challenge how their patients see themselves out of fear of running afoul of a government regulation telling them how to go about treatment.