Split personality

California’s marriage and family therapists fight war of words about same-sex unions

Sacramento therapist Nicola Simmersbach was stunned by the anti-same-sex marriage articles that appeared in The Therapist.

Sacramento therapist Nicola Simmersbach was stunned by the anti-same-sex marriage articles that appeared in The Therapist.


When Sacramento marriage and family therapist Nicola Simmersbach received the May/June issue of her professional association’s publication, The Therapist, she was horrified. She’d been warned by a colleague to expect the worst, yet when she read through the pages, she still felt betrayed.

Eight articles within the publication adamantly opposed same-sex marriage, doing so in a blatantly discriminatory and homophobic way, in her opinion. As a therapist and lesbian, she felt deeply hurt.

“It’s like opening up what you think is a letter from a family member and finding pornography,” Simmersbach said. “It was a huge shock.”

The Therapist is published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, a 30,000-member organization based in San Diego. The articles appeared as part of a special section called “Tackling the Issues of Same-Sex Marriage,” which attempted to explore the pros and cons of the issue. The disputed articles have since been removed from the association’s Web site, but the ramifications have yet to subside.

Members of California Therapists for Marriage Equality accuse the association of violating its own ethical code that states, in part, the organization’s opposition to all discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or marital status.

The group, which numbers a couple of thousand members, claims the articles argue that the inferiority and pathology of same-sex relationships are incompatible with parenting. In a petition seeking an apology, CTME says these “supposedly research-based arguments have been debunked many times over by legitimate scholars and practitioners in our own field and elsewhere.” CTME accuses the publication of portraying viewpoints on both sides of the issue as equally valid and professionally researched, which is misleading and damaging to gays and lesbians. But CAMFT says it simply presented a balance of views.

“We were seeing it as free speech and let’s put it all out there and let the members themselves make their own decisions about what’s right and what’s not right,” said Mary Riemersma, executive director of CAMFT and editor of The Therapist.

The controversy really began last year prior to the passage of Proposition 8, the initiative that changed the California Constitution to legally recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. Leading up to the election, a group of therapists urged CAMFT to take a position in support of same-sex marriage, but the association refused, deciding instead to remain neutral.

In response to those therapists upset over this inaction, CAMFT decided to examine same-sex marriage through a pro-and-con format in the May/June issue of The Therapist, said Riemersma, who reads through every manuscript the association receives and writes “yes,” “no” or “maybe” on each. According to Riemersma, the association solicited and paid for (which is rarely done) a few of the pro same-sex marriage articles; the organization didn’t pay for any of the anti-same-sex marriage articles.

The con articles come from therapists and attorneys, and even an accountant, who wrote a particularly unsettling memoir of her abusive childhood growing up in the 1960s with her promiscuous, irresponsible, gay father who trotted out numerous partners and engaged in risky sexual behavior. The article is titled “An Inside Look at Gay Parenting.”

“We feel for her, but that had nothing to do with her father being gay,” Simmersbach said. “He was just a lousy father.”

The association didn’t evaluate the research presented within any of the articles, and while several of the pro articles appear to be drawn from academic journals and heavily researched using credible sources, members of CTME describe the con articles as flimsy, based on long-debunked data and reliant on studies conducted by religious institutions.

“Frankly, I thought a couple of the [con] articles were lame,” Riemersma said. “That was my opinion.” Ultimately, though, she decided it was important to present differing opinions.

But CTME argues that some of these dissenting views promote discrimination and homophobia against GLBTQ families.

One con article in The Therapist states: “Same-sex marriage may be in the best interest of adult homosexuals who yearn for social and legal recognition of their unions, but it’s not in the best interest of children.” Another article accuses gay-marriage advocates of disregarding the issue of “homosexually parented” children as “irrelevant.”

On the pro side, one article notes how married individuals have better mental health, which positively impacts their children: “To the extent that legal marriage fosters well-being in couples, it will enhance the well-being in their children who benefit most when their parents are financially secure, physically and psychologically healthy and not subjected to high levels of stress.”

Authors on both sides agree that when gays and lesbians become parents, they do so after much deliberation, joint consultation and financial expense.

“Same-sex families provide better parenting situations because it’s not an ‘oops’ situation. You really have to want it,” said Wendy Rae-Hill, director of government relations and political affairs for the California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Rae-Hill, herself a lesbian with two young daughters, was integral in forming CTME.

A few of the con articles use fear tactics, such as one author who writes of “the indoctrination of public school students in the merits of same-sex marriage.” Another says: “It also must be expected that if society permits same-sex marriage, it also will have to allow other types of non-traditional marriage … [like] polygamous marriage,” adding that such legal maneuverings are already underway. Several articles suggest that legalizing same-sex marriage threatens religious freedom.

Potentially, the most troubling of the articles critical of same-sex marriage are those that mention reparative, or conversion, therapy, grounded in the belief that an individual can change his or her sexual orientation. Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association declared that reparative therapy should not be used on clients, in a 125-4 vote, based on two years of research.

Reparative therapy, critics argue, pressures clients into repudiating an essential part of their core selves—a difficult notion to reconcile with a therapist’s ethical vow to “do no harm.” And the American Psychoanalytic Association has stated that “same-gender sexual orientation cannot be assumed to represent a deficit in personality development or the expression of psychopathology.” Which means being gay is a healthy variation of sexuality and not a pathology, and therefore should not be treated as such.

“[Reparative therapy] is not client-empowering, but somebody telling you what to do and brainwashing you,” Rae-Hill said. “You can have your own political views, your own religious views, but when it comes to client services, you should ethically act in the best interest of the client.”

Several of the con articles in The Therapist openly explore the role of religion in therapy, highlighting the balancing act between personal beliefs and the professional mandate to provide care and affirmation to all patients, including GLBTQ people.

Additionally, another issue indirectly reflected in the fallout following the May/June issue of The Therapist is CAMFT’s continued refusal to take a stand on same-sex marriage.

Riemersma has been with the association for 25 years, and in looking back at records since the 1970s, said she has found no evidence of the association taking a stand on any social-justice issue, including the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War. “If we take a position, who does that position alienate?” she said.

“How can you not take a position on marriage?” asked Rae-Hill, whose own organization, NASW, supports gay marriage. “This is an association for family and marriage therapists.”

Historically, CAMFT has only taken positions on mental-health initiatives. But this is a mental-health issue, critics argue, noting the mental-health impacts of denying marriage to gays and lesbians, which reinforces the age-old stereotype that homosexuals are unnatural and morally perverse, their relationships illegitimate.

As one therapist writes, “While the current marriage struggle is a civil rights and political issue, for LGBT people it is very much a psychological and social issue.”

While it may be common for CAMFT to remain neutral on social-justice or civil-rights issues, that’s not true of all mental-health organizations.

The American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association support the legalization of same-sex civil marriages. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy has stated that it believes all couples who willingly commit themselves to each other and their children have a right to expect equal support and benefits in civil society.

Meanwhile, Simmersbach has become a conscientious objector at CAMFT, choosing not to pay her membership dues. During the day, she works for the Sacramento County of Children’s Mental Health program. She also has a private practice; about half of her caseload is GLBTQ people and the other half heterosexuals. She remains disheartened with CAMFT, something Riemersma is working to address.

“I came out with an apology that was heartfelt,” Riemersma said. “Some members found the articles hurtful, and in no way did we have an intent to hurt members.”

Since The Therapist came out, CTME has held three continuing-education forums where marriage and family therapists can improve their skills at providing counseling services to GLBTQ people.

“In a way,” Rae-Hill said, “It’s a silver lining, to open up a conversation for folks.”