As you may recall, former Ypsilantian Josh Steichman told us earlier this summer that he was working on a campaign to see the so-called reparative therapy of minors outlawed in California. Well, this weekend, Josh and the rest of the Equality California team were successful. California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that would prohibit therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation of individuals under 18 years of age. Well, I caught up with Josh to congratulate him, and, in the process, ended up asking a few questions. Here’s our exchange.
MARK: What’s reparative therapy?
JOSH: Sometimes also called “conversion therapy,” it’s what the other side calls efforts to turn lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids straight. It can involve anything from talk therapy to aversion therapy — where kids are shown gay porn and given drugs to make them vomit. In any case, it doesn’t work and does lasting damage.
MARK: How big of an industry are we talking about? Do we even know?
JOSH: No, we don’t. Which is frustrating. Absolutely no one keeps accurate numbers on this. Therapists don’t have to register what kind of therapy they offer, and the big trade association for these guys pretty much just makes shit up.
MARK: And what just happened in California?
JOSH: The Governor just signed SB 1172, which bans this stuff for minors.
MARK: What does the legislation say? Are these companies just not able to operate in California now, or do they have to stop advertising in California as well?
JOSH: So, what the legislation does — if you don’t mind me getting a little inside baseball — is that it makes it officially unethical for therapists to engage in this practice. That means two things: One, they’re open to tort claims against them if they try this junk after January 1. And, two, it means that any of them who are caught doing this can have their licenses revoked by the state governing board.
MARK: As an entrepreneur, I’m wondering if there might be an opportunity here for Michigan, now that these services can’t be provided in California. Ypsi’s water tower, I’m thinking, would be a great place for an intake center.
JOSH: If you’re looking to intake the water tower, you’d need a lot of lube.
MARK: On a more serious note, are you coordinating with other regions? Might we see legislation like this in other states that aren’t controlled by the radical right?
JOSH: So far, Wisconsin and Vermont have contacted us about similar legislation. I’d love to see Michigan pursue it too, but I’m worried that with Rick Snyder and the Republican legislature, Michigan is just too bugfuck nuts to pull something like this off.
MARK: I should have asked right up front, but what’s the organization you work for, and what was your role in all of this?
JOSH: I work for Equality California. We sponsored the legislation, worked with Senator Ted Lieu in crafting it, lobbied for it, and did a lot of the communications work with it, including getting over 30,000 postcards in support of it. But I gotta be clear, I’m just speaking for me, not for EQCA — this isn’t an official communique or anything.
MARK: Wasn’t there a news item in the Republican primary about Michele Bachmann having an interest in reparative therapy?
JOSH: Her husband, Marcus Bachmann, runs some clinics in Minnesota that do this stuff.
MARK: Have you personally met with any of these people? Have you sent folks in under cover? Do you have analogies that might illustrate just how crazy/evil/delusional the people are who run these facilities?
JOSH: I’ve met with people on both sides, including proponents and the quacks that are offering this stuff, as well as the victims and ex-patients.
With the proponents, they come in basically two styles, which I’ll reduce to “hot crazy” and “cold crazy” here. The hot crazies are usually fueled by a Biblical understanding that allows them to embrace cognitive dissonance, and they just aren’t going to be convinced by any science or logic or clear thinking. Occasionally, you can reach out and get one of these people thinking about the depression, anxiety and huge suicide rate that the victims have, but, generally speaking, they’re not going to be convinced by one of the damned. The other ones, the cold crazies, are the ones that tell me that, in the ’70s, UCLA did a study where they didn’t provide any maternal affection to half of a batch of infants, and, of those infants, most died, but the ones that lived turned gay. That “proves” that it’s not innate, etc. I guess the difference is that hot crazies don’t care about facts, and cold crazies just make up facts. My favorite one was this guy who actually believed there were secret underground labs all over America, and that gays are the result of a coordinated cloning program. He was totally incredulous when I told him \that I hadn’t heard of this. Like, obviously I just hadn’t been reading the right newspapers.
But it’s fundamentally the same lack of empathy and understanding that animates eliminationist rhetoric about letting the poor starve, blaming minorities for racism, etc. You get the feeling that it’s sort of necessary for them to never actually engage with people who have gone through this, because their stories are all so heartbreaking. Either that or they’re working really hard on repressing something deep within themselves, as was the case with George Rekers. Rekers was a leading proponent of this stuff, at least until he got caught with a guy from Rentboy.com.
MARK: Would it be legal if I wanted to start a facility in California to turn people gay now that this law has passed?
JOSH: Not a licensed one. You could still set yourself up as a lifecoach and make kids sit through Magic Mike, though.
MARK: I’m just curios… Do you happen to know how, in these programs, they determine whether someone has been “cured”? Do they project images and measure blood flow to one’s naughty bits?
JOSH: Self-reporting, which is why there aren’t any accurate numbers. All you have to do is pinky swear that you’re totally not gay anymore.
MARK: Will the people who were taken advantage of by these groups now have legal recourse?
JOSH: Yeah, though it’s more going forward than for folks who have already dealt with this (prohibition on bills of attainder).
MARK: What’s the response been from the right?
JOSH: A lot of strum und drang — they say they’re going to file a bunch of lawsuits, and they’ve got a fair amount of money behind them. But mostly, it’s just going to be turning these into “religious” camps, etc., which the bill doesn’t cover.
MARK: What does it cost to turn a kid straight?
JOSH: $20. Same as in town.
Honestly, I have no idea, and that’s a question I wish I’d asked people when I interviewed them about this.
MARK: What’s next for Equality CA?
JOSH: The November election. We’ve got a bunch of candidates we’re supporting, including some really strong LGBT folks out in the Central Valley, which is pretty cool. It’s long been a really conservative area, so winning there would go a long way to set acceptance of LGBT as the new normal for a lot of the state.
MARK: You mention the guy that got caught with the young man he’d acquired through rentboy.com. Is he the same one that would have the grown gay men that he was treating bend over his knee so that he could spank them? I may be mixing him up with someone else, but, if it’s the same guy, he had a theory about how gay men just needed strong father figures to imprint on. Totally creepy.
JOSH: That all sounds familiar, but they all kind of have weird father theories since it’s all based on a conservative ’50s gender role thing where you pretend that there were no gay people before hippies ruined America’s men or whatever.
MARK: Lessons learned in this campaign?
JOSH: For me, it was a couple things: One, I didn’t know a whole lot about this bullshit until the campaign started. Like, I’d seen “But I’m a Cheerleader” and knew that this stuff went on in the ’50s, and even the ’70s, but it always seemed like, a black and white photo, you know? Finding out it was going on now was like meeting people that believed in phlogiston. Two, how much work this stuff actually takes. And how much of that work is meetings, which I kinda have a constitutional aversion to. I always have something else that I could be working on, and instead we’re on a conference call. But I kinda think of that as a general complaint about pretty much every office job I’ve ever had.
MARK: You mentioned in an earlier conversation that you were now 6 for 6, referring to other legislation that you’d gotten past. What were the other 5 bills?
JOSH: Heh. I’ve been running through these so often over the last two weeks. They are AB 1856, to create LGBT cultural competency standards for foster care; AB 1505, which gives veterans discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell back their state benefits; AB 1700, which basically levels the playing field for tax reassessment after a partner’s death (we have Prop 13; it works about the same as Prop A); and SB 1140 which basically makes explicit that marriage is civil and that clergy can’t be punished for not performing marriages they don’t like. We also got a legislative audit through for a bunch of laws we passed last year that have been suffering from spotty implementation.