Chris Christie’s Conversion Politics
(Corrects third paragraph to refer to support of so-called conversion therapy instead of opposition to it.)
More than a decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that patients and their parents “avoid any treatments that claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation, or treatment ideas that see homosexuality as a sickness.” This week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie officially endorsed this point of view.
Christie signed a bill banning licensed therapists from trying to “convert” gay teens to heterosexuality. For that he received stinging criticism from conservative anti-gay groups. It’s possible, however -- hard as it may be to imagine -- that Christie’s supporters are exaggerating the political courage he showed by signing this legislation. It’s also possible to overthink the more legitimate debate it raises.
Let’s dispose of the politics first. Christie, whose presidential ambitions extend beyond New Jersey, may well make trouble for himself among some socially conservative Republicans with his support of this bill. Yet support of so-called conversion therapy -- much like opposition to same-sex marriage -- is dwindling, and will further by 2016. At any rate, truckling to fear and prejudice is no way to win a party nomination or, for that matter, to lead a state.
As for the debate over the policy itself, Christie and the nation’s pediatricians are in good company: The American Psychological Association and 11 other groups all concur that homosexuality is not something that can or should be “cured.” Yet some social conservatives maintain that the New Jersey law, only the second in the nation after a similar law in California, infringes on parental rights.
They are correct, of course. Parents who are desperate for their children to be straight, and willing to go to extremes in an attempt to make it happen, have just had their rights circumscribed in New Jersey. But the tales of abuse and heartbreak in the dubious field of conversion therapy are sufficient impetus to legislative action.
New Jersey lawmakers heard testimony from a transgendered woman who as a teen was sent away to a conversion camp where she was subjected to twice-weekly electric-shock therapy and vomit-inducing drugs. Her rights, and the rights of others like her, trump the preferences of parents who resist evidence that sexuality doesn’t bend to quack therapies.
In a statement accompanying his signing of the bill, Christie focused on the health risks conversion therapy posed to children. Left unaddressed were the benefits greater acceptance of gays and gay rights, including same-sex marriage, bring to society as a whole.
New Jersey’s governor still opposes same-sex marriage, as his critics (rather uncharitably, given that he had just signed this bill into law) pointed out this week. Christie’s challenge now is not so much to justify his limited support of gay rights to his social-conservative allies. It’s to explain to them and the rest of the country why his support doesn’t extend further.
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