Amid the controversy surrounding a billboard in the Richmond area that claims that “nobody is born gay,” as well as the District of Columbia’s historic step in becoming the third U.S. jurisdiction to pass a bill prohibiting licensed therapists from practicing so-called “conversion” or “reparative” therapy on minors, LGBT legislative allies in Virginia are gearing up for a fight to pass a similar measure in the Old Dominion during next year’s legislative session.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington Co. (Photo credit: Hope for Virginia)
The vehicle for their action is HB1385, a measure introduced by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington Co.), which would seek to amend the Code of Virginia to prohibit licensed therapists, mental health professionals, or counselors from engaging in “sexual orientation change efforts” with any person under the age of 18. The bill defines sexual orientation change efforts as any intervention, counseling or services designed to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expressions. It does not include treatment, interventions, counseling or services to those seeking to transition from one gender to another, or services that “provide acceptance, social support, or identity exploration and development.” Those found guilty of engaging in such practices may be punished or subject to disciplinary action for “unprofessional conduct.”
For Hope, the bill’s patron, the issue surrounding a ban on conversion therapy for minors is all about the proper role of government when minors are being coerced into treatment against their will or are being subject to harmful treatments. He also said that if such treatments are ineffective, it may lead youth to contemplate more drastic measures, including suicide.
“There’s pretty clear evidence out of the medical community that the risks are great,” Hope told Metro Weekly, noting that many medical professionals or organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, have rejected the claim that there is a scientific basis for reparative therapy. “If this is going on with minors, they’re not equipped to deal with this. The risks outweigh any type of benefits.”
Hope said the government has an obligation to act when conversion therapies practiced on minors are harmful, as the government would in the case of a parent who was beating their child.
“When it’s something that can harm a child, government should step in,” Hope said. “The rights of the child should always trump any parental rights or religious rights.”
Hope also stressed that, like similar measures that passed in D.C., California and New Jersey, his bill only prohibits licensed therapists from engaging in such therapies with minors, who are not of legal age to consent to such treatment without their parents’ permission.
“We’re not trying to say that if an adult wants to go through this snake oil-type of hoax, they can’t,” he said. “They still can.”
He also said he hopes that more people who have undergone conversion therapy and have not successfully changed their orientation, particularly those subjected to it as minors, will be emboldened to come forward and share their stories with legislators considering the issue.
Hope’s bill faces a tough uphill battle in the House. Last year, when hope introduced a similar measure, only one other House legislator — Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax Co.) — signed on as a co-patron. The bill was eventually tabled in a subcommittee.
As Republicans control the House of Delegates, 68-31, with another seat currently vacant, the GOP enjoys a nearly 2-1 edge on all committees. That advantage is even greater on the Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions, where HB1385 would be heard, as Republicans currently hold a 15-5 edge. There are two vacancies on the committee that should ideally be filled by Democrats: one, previously filled by Delegate Algie Howell (D-Norfolk, Virginia Beach), who retired and was replaced by Democrat Joe Lindsey in a special election well after the close of this year’s legislative session; and the other, formerly held by Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg, Hopewell, Prince George, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie counties), who was elected to the Senate in November and whose replacement will be decided in a Jan. 6 special election. If those vacancies are filled, supporters of Hope’s bill would need 12 votes to move the measure out of committee.
Further limiting Hope’s probability of success, the subcommittee to which the bill is likely to be assigned is stacked 4-1 in favor of Republicans, with hardcore social conservatives Brenda Pogge (James City, York counties) and Richard P. “Dickie” Bell (Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta, Highland, Nelson counties) taking up two of the Republican slots. That means the bill would have to win the support of Delegates Rob Krupicka (D-Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax counties), John O’Bannon (R-Henrico Co.) and Bobby Orrock (R-Spotsylvania, Caroline counties), the Health Committee’s chairman, just to have the slightest chance of a full committee vote.
Still, Hope insists, he’s introducing the legislation because it’s the right thing to do. He also believes that more Republicans are becoming more comfortable with the idea of LGBT people.
“2014 was such a big year for marriage equality and LGBT rights in general,” Hope said. “Even my friends on the right are coming to realize this is no big deal.”
Hope’s bill is also likely to stoke the ire of conservative groups, including Virginia’s Family Foundation, the Commonwealth’s leading conservative policy and lobbying organization, as well as socially conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council (FRC), the International Healing Foundation (IHF) and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), the group responsible for the billboard asserting that sexual orientation is not genetic. The latter three have been quite vocal in their opposition to any attempted bans on conversion therapy, bragging that they have helped defeat such bans even in liberal states like Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Washington state and Maryland.
Emails seeking comment from the Family Foundation and PFOX were not returned as of press time.
Equality Virginia, the state’s top LGBT rights organization, strongly supports Hope’s bill. The organization previously denounced the message behind the PFOX billboard, saying it was “despicable” and “based on junk science.”
“Implying that being gay is a choice is not only incorrect, but can be damaging to LGBT youth who are still struggling to come to terms with who they are,” James Parrish, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement. “Equality Virginia fully supports Delegate Hope’s bill that would conversion therapy to minors. The medical community agrees that conversion therapy is not only ineffective but can be extremely harmful to the individual — we must not allow our youth to be put through a so-called treatment that can cause depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.”