Conversion Therapy Is Bad, but Banning It Is a Form of Unacceptable Censorship
We don’t need lawmakers deciding what therapies should be supported or legal.
by Scott Shackford, Reason, Jan. 29, 2016
Hawaii is the latest state to consider bans on conversion therapy for youths under legal age. "Conversion therapy" is the term for trying to turn gay people straight or to convince transgender people to embrace their biological sex. It is a form of therapy that is now widely discredited by experts as ineffective and immoral.
Legislation has been introduce in Hawaii to mostly ban the practice, and really to ban certain people from talking about it. The bill has two parts. The first part of the bill forbids teachers from engaging in efforts to change the sexual orientation of students under the age of 18. While it's under the purview of the state to determine what topics of discussion are appropriate between public teachers and students on the job, the law does not appear to differentiate between public and private school teachers. It also doesn't seem to differentiate between a teacher doing his or her work as an educator or a teacher engaged in private matters on his or her own time.
The second part of the law would forbid licensed counselors, psychologists, and the like from offering conversion therapy to minors or advertising conversion therapy to minors. Doing so will result in discipline from licensing authorities and would be considered "an unfair or deceptive act or practice" by Hawaiian law.
Laws like this go above and beyond regulating and forbidding practices that are scientifically certain to be harmful (like prescribing inappropriate and dangerous medicine) to actually censoring and forbidding types of discussion. These kinds of laws should be resisted not because one supports trying to convert gay people or transgender people, but because it's an intrusion of artificial government certainty into a field of treatment that is anything but.
Under the logic of these laws, back when the government and psychiatrists thought homosexuals were mentally ill predators (which wasn't, frankly, all that long ago), it would have been perfectly acceptable and logical for the government to pass laws that did the exact reverse: to forbid therapists and counselors from encouraging youths from accepting and acting on their homosexuality. Indeed, as late as 2013, conservative state legislators were trying to pass laws that did the exact opposite and forbid teachers and educators from even discussing homosexuality with some school students.
The same type of people who object to "don't say gay" laws embrace and champion anti-conversion therapy laws. But the principle that drives the two laws is exactly the same. Each side wants to use the government to forcibly censor discussions that they believe may be harmful to the young listener. The law proposed in Hawaii happens to have a majority of the therapeutic field on its side. Now. Fifty years ago would have been a different situation.
The lesson people should be learning from the history of anti-gay bigotry in America's government is to try to keep lawmakers and officials from controlling the cultural discussion. If it is acceptable and moral for a Hawaiian legislator to use the power of government to stop certain discussions about sexual orientation from happening because she thinks they are harmful, then it's just as acceptable and moral for a Tennessee legislator to use the power of government to censor in a completely different direction for the same reasons.
If conversion therapy is ineffective (and it is) it will fall out of practice on its own (which it is). The law does nothing to prevent non-licensed religion-based conversion efforts, and ultimately that's where this is all going to end up, to the extent that it still continues. The law can't stop non-licensed conversion therapy because lawmakers know that would be a First Amendment violation. But if conversion therapy is "harmful," it's still harmful when attempted by non-licensed therapists, right? That's the sign that this kind of law is about regulating speech, not treatment.