New Jersey could become the second state in the nation to limit practitioners of "conversion" counseling, a controversial form of psychological therapy that aims to persuade gay people to adopt a heterosexual identity.
Assemblyman Timothy J. Eustace (D., Bergen), an openly gay father of two, plans to introduce a bill next week that would outlaw use of the technique on those under 18 years old.
"I see it as a form of child abuse," he said. Being gay "is not an illness, so what are they fixing?"
"Conversion" or "reparative" therapy has been discredited by all major mental health organizations, according to the American Psychological Association. Since parents may force their children to undergo the therapy, the state should protect them, Eustace said.
The bills will face stiff resistance from the New Jersey Family Policy Council, a group that opposes gay marriage. Government should not interfere with parental decisions, said the group's founder and president, Len Deo.
"The American Psychological Association has been very 'progressive' in their viewpoints. I would say there are thousands who have have utilized this therapy that have left the gay lifestyle," he said.
"Assemblyman Eustace now becomes the parental authority for all . . . kids? Give me a break," Eustace added. "A kid can't get a tattoo in New Jersey without a parent's consent. To take the flip side on this and take away the right of the parents on this issue is ludicrous."
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who, with Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), plans to introduce a similar measure in the Senate, said conversion therapy "exploits young boys and girls who happen to be gay."
"Parents don't have the right to endanger their children by participating in a practice that has no basis in science whatsoever," Sweeney said.
If the Democratically-led Legislature approved the bill, it would next go to Republican Gov. Christie, who this year blocked a bill to legalize gay marriage.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak declined to comment Monday on whether the governor would be likely to sign the measure.
California Gov. Jerry Brown last weekend signed a bill outlawing conversion therapy for those under 18, calling it "quackery."
No one should be denied the right to pursue the counseling he or she wants, said Greg Quinlan, 54, a North Jersey resident who said he used to be attracted to men. Therapy, although not specifically "reparative" therapy, helped Quinlan overcome trauma from childhood sexual assault that he believes influenced his former sexual preference. He now leads a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays.
"Parents have the right to guide their child," said Quinlan, who would not reveal his hometown because, he said, he has received death threats.
About 70 therapists in 20 states, including two in North Jersey, advertise conversion therapy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that aims to help curb the practice. Many are pastoral counselors.
Sam Wolfe, a center lawyer involved with civil rights issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, said therapy was "too dignified" a term for the counseling.
"One person we've been working with, his parents sent him to conversion therapy when he was 14," Wolfe said. "They believed that they could help cure their child of being gay, but this was like psychological torture for the kid. . . . There's also a lot of shame inflicted on clients."
"Society, in general, is conversion therapy," Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), the first openly gay member of the Legislature, said.