On Tuesday, August 20th, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into a law a bicameral bill banning the use of so-called “conversion therapy” techniques by licensed therapists on minors in attempts to change their sexual orientation.
New Jersey becomes only the second state with such a ban, California being the first. A petition started by Parsippany teen-ager Jacob Rudolph urging Governor Christie to approve the law received over 143,000 thousand signatures.
“I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate,” Christie said. “Based upon this analysis, I sign this bill into law.”
The American Psychological Association and other professional groups have condemned the practices (also known as Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, or SOCE) as misguided and often harmful, leading to emotional distress, substance abuse and self-injury. Christie cited these findings in his opinion.
The news was welcomed by the Rev. Diana Wilcox, Assistant Rector at St. Luke’s, Montclair and Chaplain of the Web of Life Christian Community at Montclair State University, who called the practice “a double-edged sword” for people of all ages, but particularly for young people who are still figuring out who they are. “First, they tell you that there’s something wrong with you, and then — when (the treatments) don’t work — you feel like a failure,” she explained. “LGBT people are not born feeling ‘less than,’” she asserts, “They can often feel that way because they’ve been told they should.” In a homily given on LGBT Sunday last fall, a gay student member of her young congregation at Montclair State shared that he tried twice in high school to commit suicide.
Wilcox said that – while the ruling is important – what she found even more significant was the shut-down earlier this year of Exodus International (the nation’s largest “ex-gay ministry”) and the admission by its president Alan Chambers that the treatments simply don’t work, and are in fact harmful. “It’s deeply disturbing that people of faith are doing these things out of a misguided understanding of how to love each other as Christ loved us,” she said. “It’s sad when people twist something as beautiful as belief in God to think God’s creation isn’t good enough if it doesn’t look/think/act just like them. That understanding is the basis for many of the “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexim, etc.) that plague our society.”
Christie’s stance on LGBT issues, and how it intersects with his own faith, is nuanced. A Roman Catholic, he vetoed a marriage equality bill which passed in both houses of the state’s legislature last year, but has stated that he believes homosexuality is something people are born with and not sinful. He believes civil unions are appropriate and has stated that if a public referendum on marriage equality passed a vote, he would sign it into law.
Wilcox believes change will come to New Jersey, hastened by the recent Supreme Court ruling which cast a glaring light on the disparity between true marriage equality and the civil unions the state offers, but that there is much more work to be done. “I’ve seen the progress we’ve made over the decades, and yet I still hear students talk to me about the isolation and condemnation they feel from parents, siblings and friends after coming out,” she reports. “At a time when a faith community would be so needed, they are often afraid to go to church, feeling that they will be judged. Now finally many churches are coming around and realizing this is not how we envision God’s grace and unconditional love. But, there is still so much work to do to get the message out that everyone is a beloved child of God.”
Although the campus ministry is not LGBT-specific, students feel drawn to its inclusive stance, which can often differ from other religious offerings. One student told Wilcox, “I didn’t think God heard my prayers, because I am gay. From listening to you, I could believe God loves me.”