Conversion Therapy and Other 'For the Children' Measures As Efforts to Curtail Liberty

In the name of children's rights.


In the twilight of his administration, with all that stage-managed hope of 2008 having long turned to dust, Obama needs all the whoops he can get. And he got a fair few with his expression of contempt for conversion therapy—the pseudoscientific, psychobabbling attempt to turn gay kids straight by bombarding them with Biblical scripture. 

In response to a petition calling for conversion therapy to be banned, Obama's people said they shared the petitioners' concerns about the "devastating effects" such therapy can have on "the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth."

The petitioners want a conversion-outlawing "Leelah's Law"—named after Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old trans girl who killed herself in December after her parents sent her for therapy—and Obama is sympathetic to their pleas. As part of "our dedication to protecting America's youth," the Obama team "supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors," the statement said.

 Protecting American youth, including gay ones—who could be against that? Only the cold-hearted and possibly homophobic, surely?

Actually, it depends on who's doing the protecting, and what they're protecting youth from. And in the case of officialdom's growing agitation with conversion therapy, we have a pretty clear case of the state wanting to protect youth from their own parents' beliefs, from their parents' way of thinking, and from their faith.

The Obama lot can doll this up as a nice, liberal idea as much as they like, but there's no disguising the threat it poses to freedom of religion, freedom of association, and the rights of parents.

 All of us—bar perhaps those on the fringes of Christian evangelism—will balk at some of the stuff that happens at conversion-therapy sessions. Based on the mad, outdated idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder, some religio-therapeutic meddling with gay teens involves making them undergo humiliating rituals, like stripping naked in front of others to generate a sense of sexual distance from bodies of the same gender. There are reports of teens being given nausea-inducing drugs to make them think the junk of their own sex is gross rather than attractive.

Listen, if young people are being made to rip their clothes off by so-called experts, or are given dodgy drugs, then there's a case for intervention—perhaps a knock on mom and dad's door to ask them "WTF?".

 But the tag "conversion therapy" covers so much more than those clearly perverse antics. As a Guardian piece says, it can sometimes involve intensive praying sessions—an attempt to "pray the gay away"—or "talking with church leaders or visiting religious camps."

Even counselling sessions that involve only speech—no drugs, no nudity—are sometimes dragged under the conversion-therapy heading. So one-on-one sessions between a concerned Catholic priest and a teen giving off gay vibes could be counted as a stab at conversion, if the priest's aim is to turn the teen straight.

A university in Ireland recently banned Catholic counselling for gay students, on the basis that its offer to help those students "move beyond the confines of the homosexual label" counted as homophobic conversion. Might there be similar bans on religious speech in the U.S. if a future administration clamps down on conversion therapy? Will we see the outlawing, not only of the stripping of youngsters, but also of intense Catholic chats, eccentric religious camps, certain forms of proselytization? 

If we invite the authorities to police conversion therapy, we throw open the realm of religious liberty itself to their watchful eye. A top-down war on all the stuff that gets collapsed under the title "conversion" would seriously dent the freedom of religion. 

Parents must be free to communicate their beliefs to their children. That's a central part of religious liberty: the right to raise one's kids according to one's own moral, spiritual convictions. 

Yes, this will often mean parents telling their children stuff that the rest of us—mainstream, largely secular society—would rather they didn't, whether it's that Jews killed Christ, other religions are BS, or that being gay is wicked. But that's life. That's liberty. Giving people the freedom to voice and spread only those ideas that have won mainstream society's approval is not freedom at all—it's state-enforced thought, it's tyranny.

The administration's move against conversion therapy speaks to one of the major threats to liberty today: the utilisation of children by the authorities, or campaigners, as a means of undermining the freedom and autonomy of adults. Ours is becoming an era of in loco parentis, where those with power are increasingly using kids as a moral shied for their intolerant clampdowns on the behaviour or beliefs of adults.

There's United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron's desire to turn off the porn on all Britons' home computers in the name of protecting children; the European campaign group Child's Eye Line, which seeks to remove sexual imagery from public life to prevent the pollution of kids' minds; the growing international campaign to have circumcision banned—which would mean an end to Jewish boys, in essence—on the basis that it's "child abuse"; the rising number of police clampdowns, in both Europe and America, on parents who—horror of horrors—allow their kids out alone, and on it goes. "Saving children"—whether from moral pollution or physical threat—has become the top rallying cry of those who really want to interfere in and rearrange the adult worlds of words, images, ideas, morality, parenting, home life, and community life.

This isn't new, of course. As Marjorie Heins showed in her 2008 book Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, for hundreds of years various officialdoms censored and controlled society under the guise of preventing "harm to minors." But such child-fronting cynicism by aspiring authoritarians appears to have intensified in recent years. The more that the old, traditionalist, moral arguments for controlling what we think and do have fallen into disrepair, the more the illiberal have been forced to shove children to the front of their censorious campaigns and to holler: "Won't somebody please think of the children?" Emotional blackmail as a stand-in for moral authority.

And it's the same with the proposed clampdown on conversion therapy: here, too, officials paint themselves as the decent protectors of youngsters from harm, when in truth their urge is to restrict the expression of certain religious ideas and the rights of association of those parents and adults who, I'm afraid to say, think homosexuality is bad.

It's time liberals called into question the very idea of children's rights. Of course children must have the same legal protection from harm or harassment as adults. But they can't have rights in the same way we do—like the right to serve on a jury, the right to vote, the right to leave home and shack up with hippies—because they lack the moral capacity to exercise those rights and to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Which means that most pursuits of so-called "children's rights" really involve adults, usually quite powerful ones, exercising rights on children's behalf, normally as part of a culture war against raunch, or religion, or parents themselves. It's the exploitation of children to the end of curtailing pesky liberty. It's the undermining of rights—real, adult rights—in the lingua franca of rights. Activism doesn't get much more cynical than this.