Around the country, state governments have wrestled with questions of how to best recognize relationship commitments among same-sex couples. To provide guidance and respond to questions from legislators and the public, most mental health organizations have developed clear and specific policy statements that show where the organizations stand:
- The American Psychological Association clearly and openly “supports legalization of same-sex civil marriages and opposes discrimination against lesbian and gay parents.” They even go a step further, acknowledging research that suggests anti-gay-marriage laws do harm.
- The National Association of Social Workers gives wholehearted “support for same-sex marriages, and strongly opposes any attempt to pass federal legislation or amend the United States Constitution to discriminate against same-sex couples or prohibit governmental recognition of these relationships.” They also have a fair amount of deeper documentation on the issue.
- The American Psychiatric Association “supports the legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage with all rights, benefits, and responsibilities conferred by civil marriage, and opposes restrictions to those same rights, benefits, and responsibilities.”
Of course organizations of marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are uniquely qualified and well-positioned to address this issue. The positions we stake can be particularly important to policymakers.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) went through a thoughtful, open process of debating the issue a few years ago. The result of that process is the following policy statement (emphasis mine):
AAMFT believes that all couples who willingly commit themselves to each other, and their children, have a right to expect equal support and benefits in civil society. Thus, we affirm the right of all committed couples and their families to legally equal benefits, protection, and responsibility.
That policy statement was developed through careful deliberation, member comments (about 800 pages’ worth), and importantly, a very extensive report (on their web site, but restricted to members) on the state of the research around same-sex couples and their children.
The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) has taken a very different approach to the question: Avoidance. Even after a great deal of member protest, at its most recent board meeting CAMFT only went so far as to put out a generic anti-discrimination statement that sidestepped any and all meaningful questions: Is refusal to allow same-sex marriage discrimination? Should same-sex parents be allowed to adopt and raise children? How does the term “marriage” relate to the work of MFTs, particularly our work with same-sex couples? They don’t say.
Officially, CAMFT’s refusal to step in has been on the grounds that it is not the best use of their resources. Get caught up in this social cause, the argument goes, and you wind up caught in many more, and they distract from the mission of the organization.
This is hogwash, of course. Professional associations in mental health usually have specific policies for addressing social issues, and processes for determining which social issues to get involved with. They understand that these issues need to be addressed, because social issues inherently impact the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The dilemma for CAMFT — and I’m guessing here, trying to give the benefit of the doubt — must revolve around whether to risk alienating a significant portion of their membership. MFTs come in many stripes, from those who adamantly support same-sex marriage and see it as a human rights issue, to those who just as adamantly believe marriage is a religious institution and therefore needs to be restricted. Take a stand on either side of the debate, and in an instant, you’ve shown a major portion of your membership that you do not share their value.
As a worker in an evidence-based field, I would hope that my colleagues would be willing to be guided by the best available research at the time. The policy statements of other organizations make it clear that they are trying to do just that, even over the objections of a portion of their membership. To be sure, each organization likely lost a few members when they took the stands they did. Silence, however, does not seem like the ideal answer.
CAMFT members are now pushing back, organizing petitions and trying to encourage change from within the organization — or, failing that, suggesting that therapists quit CAMFT entirely (here are just a few resignation letters to CAMFT). Since CAMFT board members were this year selected by a committee (the most recent member “election” was a perfunctory exercise, with only one candidate put on the ballot for each open position), such actions may be the only way members feel they can have a voice in the organization, short of actually serving on the board.
It is interesting that California, which was the first state to license MFTs, now houses the group of psychotherapists last to recognize the harm done by staying silent about what “marriage” means.
A quick aside: I haven’t mentioned the American Counseling Association (ACA) here because I can’t quite tell where they stand. I found an obtuse reference to a 1997 resolution the organization debated, but I can’t find the resolution or indications of whether they adopted it or not. They do have an active division on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in counseling, which by itself is a step above CAMFT on the issue.