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California weighs bill to ban gay teen 'conversion' therapy

California may ban a controversial therapy designed to convert teens from gay to straight. KNBC-TV's Patrick Healy reports.

A California lawmaker says he’s optimistic about the prospects of a bill that would make it illegal for therapists in the state to try to “convert” gay youths.

Sen. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from Torrance, says so-called “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy wrongfully treats homosexuality as a disease and can be dangerous to minors. If his bill becomes law, California would become the first state to ban therapy aimed at turning gay and lesbian teens straight.


“Some therapists are taking advantage of vulnerable people by pushing dangerous sexual orientation-change efforts,” Lieu said before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve the bill on Tuesday. “These non-scientific efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish.”

SB 1172 now goes to the full Senate. No date for a vote has been set, but it will likely be in the next month, according to Lieu. If it passes there, it would face action in the Assembly.

“For decades, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — particularly youth — have suffered psychological abuse by those who are entrusted to care for their emotional and psychological well-being,” Clarissa Filgioun, board president of Equality California, an advocacy organization that sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “It's long past time to do everything in our power to put an end to the use of therapy tactics that have no sound scientific basis and that cause lifelong damage.”

President Obama says he now supports same-sex marriage, ending months of equivocation on a subject with powerful election-year consequences. NBC's Brian Williams and Chuck Todd reports.

The bill would ban children under 18 from undergoing so-called “sexual orientation change efforts,” often referred to by the acronym SOCE. It would also require adults seeking such treatment to sign informed-consent forms indicating that they understand potential dangers of reparative therapy that the bill lays out, including depression and suicide, and that it has no medical basis.

“I feel confident that the bill will pass,” Lieu told msnbc.com on Wednesday. “The facts are on our side.”

His comments came on the same day that Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to publicly back same-sex marriage. Obama said that, after reflection, he had concluded “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Obama: 'I think same-sex couples should be able to get married'

SOCE techniques vary and may include visualization, behavioral and social skills training components. In some extreme cases, therapists have used electric shock or nausea-inducing drugs to try to modify the behavior of gay people, according to media reports.

Lieu says decades of research by mental health experts have shown that efforts to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation can be harmful.

Several professional groups, including the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, have taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder, and therefore there is no need for a “cure.”

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, on Tuesday urged lawmakers to approve his bill to ban a form of psychotherapy aimed at making gay people straight.

Opponents of Lieu’s bill say it’s wrong to single out one form of therapy.

David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California who says he was once gay and became heterosexual after undergoing reparative therapy starting in his 30s, says a ban would prevent some people from recovering from trauma of sexual abuse.

Pickup, who trained under the supervision of psychologist Joseph Nicolosi -- considered by many to be the father of modern reparative therapy -- traveled to Sacramento on Tuesday to testify against the bill.

He said its backers are "egregiously misquoting the science” by contending that all SOCE is harmful. He also said the bill “takes away parents’ rights to have any input on their sons’ and daughters’ ambiguousness about sexuality.”

“I was one of those abused boys, so people like me can’t receive this kind of help, which in my opinion is just horrific,” Pickup told msnbc.com. “I’ve dealt with these issues and come out extremely happy. Reparative therapy saved my life.”

Pickup is a member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, which describes itself as an organization that “offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality.” NARTH calls the bill “a scientific and legislative travesty.”

“The fact that this legislation is solely directed at SOCE should be a red flag suggesting that ideological and political motivations may motivate backers of this legislation as much as any concern for consumers derived from the relevant science,” the group says.  “NARTH believes this effort, if successful, would set a dangerous precedence for the mental health professions, unjustly restrict client rights, and almost certainly invite legal action.”

Exodus International, a Florida-based Christian group that has “ex-gay” ministries and churches across the country, including about three dozen in California, declined to comment on the bill on Wednesday, saying the matter was "outside the scope of our ministry."

Other professional groups say they think the bill is well-intended but needs to be tweaked.

A coalition including the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, California Psychiatric Association, California Psychological Association, and the Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors is seeking amendments to the bill.

“Our big concern is that the definition of sexual orientation change efforts is overbroad and too much is open to interpretation,” said Jill Epstein, executive director of the state marriage and family therapists association. “It could have a chilling effect on legitimate explorations of gender identity issues.”

Lieu says his office is working with the coalition to address the concerns.

He says public response to the bill has been overall very positive. But he’s also been the recipient of a steady stream of hate emails, phone calls and tweets, including one person who recently tweeted him: “I know that you are not a Christian, but God exists and you will not enter the kingdom of heaven for this.”

Lieu tweeted in response: “You do not decide, God does.”

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