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Richmond reacts to ban on gay conversion therapy

on October 22, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill last month to ban what’s commonly called “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy,” processes aimed at changing the sexual orientation of minors.

The controversial therapy has been around since Freudian times. Numerous studies, such as one published as a booklet by the American Psychological Association, stated that the therapy can be tied to isolation, lack of support, and negative self-destructive behaviors.

Youth and LGBT groups in Richmond welcomed the new law. Aran Watson, the community health director at RYSE in Richmond, said it represents a position that needs to be broadened to better work with younger generations. RYSE is a community based organization that seeks to provide a safe, positive and supportive environment for Richmond youth and frequently provides support to the local LGBT community.

“The hardest thing [LGBT youth] have is to find a place where they feel safe,” Watson said.

He also said he believed that the bill would improve relationships with the younger generation in Richmond.

“Young people are treated as if they have this problem inside of them, that adults say they need to fix,” Watson said, “when we should be meeting them with open arms.”

Molly Merson, a registered marriage family therapist intern, moved to Richmond four years ago, but has a private practice internship in Berkeley.

“We’re all impacted by it, either people have gone through this therapy or have been ostracized by friends, family, or community,” Merson said. “ I think it’s a big win to know they aren’t going through this therapy.”

She said she also believed that the isolation, lack of support, and bullying inflicted on a minor due to his or her sexual orientation has severely adverse effects, and the attention shouldn’t be on changing the child’s sexual orientation but on stopping the bullying.

“Change the people who are bullying, but that’s never talked about,” Merson said. “It’s ‘If you’re having this negative experience than you need to change.’”

Merson said she has worked with various LGBT mental support groups in the Bay Area over the years, and completely supports the new law, which will take effect Jan. 1.

“As an adult people can be free to choose what they do,” she said. “LGBT is not a disease or a problem, it doesn’t require fixing.”

But some practicing Bay Area therapists said they thought the law went too far.

“People have a right to seek therapy,” said one therapist, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional retribution. He said he believed the law was unconstitutional, and that Governor Brown succumbed to political pressure.

“You can’t stop people from getting the help that they want,” he said. “It’s not going to hold up in court.”

He also said that the law places unequal scrutiny on mental health care providers who provide the conversion therapy, and that to be equal all forms of therapy should be studied equally to determine if they are harmful or not. Several groups have announced plans to file lawsuits against the ban.

And in Richmond, some were ambivalent. Preacher James E. Austin of the Church of Christ on Macdonald Avenue said his position on the matter isn’t to try to change the individuals that come to him to talk about their homosexuality. But he said he only tells them what the Bible says.

“Never condemning, I believe the Bible speaks against that quite clearly,” Austin said. “I believe what the Bible says, that homosexuality is a sin.”

If mental health care providers are reported for breaking the new law, they could be accountable to “discipline” by state licensing associations, the law’s text stated.

The California Board of Psychology met last week to discuss how it will change its regulations and guidelines now that the law has been signed. Robert Kahane, the group’s executive enforcement officer, said that discipline could range from fines to the revoking of the provider’s license, depending on the severity of the situation.

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