Metro Weekly

Virginia Republicans kill attempt to ban conversion therapy on minors

Advocates hope petition drive expressing support for House version of bill will make lawmakers reconsider their opposition

Scott Surovell – Photo: Facebook.

A Virginia Senate committee voted along party lines to kill a bill that would have prevented licensed therapists and counselors from subjecting minors under the age of 18 to conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy, which has been widely debunked, seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or, at a minimum, to alter their behavior so they don’t act on their feelings by engaging in same-sex relations or living as the gender with which they identify.

The Senate version of the bill, SB 245, patroned by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), would have imposed penalties on therapists or counselors who subject minors to various forms of conversion therapy.

The methods can range from public shaming or hypnosis to more drastic measures, like forced vomiting or electric shock therapy.

Penalties for those mental health professionals who practice on minors would include disciplinary charges, suspension or permanent loss of their license.

However, the bill was defeated by Republican senators in a party-line vote, 8-7, in the Committee on Education and Health.

In a shock to LGBTQ advocates, two of the Republican committee members, Senators Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and David Suetterlein (R-Salem), were among six Republicans who had voted for pro-LGBTQ bills banning discrimination in employment and housing last year.

Surovell took to Twitter after his bill was killed, tweeting: “Upsetting to see Education and Health kill my Conversion Therapy bill. Using harmful ‘therapy’ to convince youth they are unwell, simply for being who they are is WRONG. Conversion Therapy in Virginia will end. To all those working to ban its practice Thank You for your support.”

LGBTQ rights organization Equality Virginia thanked Surovell for the bill. But the organization is not giving up yet, as Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) has an almost identical bill, HB 363, that has yet to be voted upon in the House of Delegates.

Equality Virginia tweeted a link to a petition by Andrew Wilson, a transgender man who is a college sophomore studying to be a nurse, who has taken up the cause of pushing for a ban on conversion therapy.

“The facts are simple, conversion therapy doesn’t work, but more than that, it can actually cause real and lasting harm, including: depression, shame, substance abuse, and even suicide,” Wilson writes in his petition. “When I was in high school, I told my parents that I thought I might be transgender, and just like me, they had no idea what to do. Thankfully, a healthcare professional referred my parents to a local psychologist who specializes in gender identity. The psychologist sat down with me and my family and explained gender identity and what it means to be transgender.

“I was one of the lucky ones — but it shouldn’t be up to luck when it comes to the health, safety, and well-being of children. Our state should protect them.”

Equality Virginia will hold a “Lobby Day” in Richmond on Feb. 5, during which constituents can lobby and meet in person with their lawmakers to express support for pro-LGBTQ measures. Due to an influx of 16 new Democrats (15 of whom picked up seats from Republicans in November), advocates are hopeful that LGBTQ bills will actually be debated and considered on their merits, rather than tabled on unrecorded voice votes, as they have been during past sessions.

A 2016 poll by Public Policy Polling, commissioned by Equality Virginia, showed that 56% of Virginians support banning conversion therapy for minors. 

If ordinary Virginians can sign Wilson’s petition and express their overwhelming support for the measure, the hope is that public pressure cannot only force lawmakers to pass the bill in the House, but could force some Republicans on the Senate Education and Health Committee to reconsider their votes if and when Hope’s bill comes up for consideration after “crossover,” the General Assembly’s self-imposed deadline by which all bills with a chance of passage into law must pass one chamber and be sent to the remaining legislative chamber.

“The Senate committee hearing today taught us a lot about the concerns legislators have when it comes to banning conversion therapy in Virginia,” Vee Lamneck, the deputy director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that by further educating the delegates on the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions, they will understand that the state has a compelling interest in ensuring that licensed health care providers follow professional standards of care and do not engage in dangerous practices that have no scientific basis.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com