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In June 2014, the National Center for Lesbian Rights set a lofty goal: end conversion therapy on minors in every state by 2019. Four years later, the organization is one-fifth of the way to meeting that goal. But as the days and weeks before their self-imposed deadline pass, it’s become clear that advocates will need to step up their efforts.
Conversion therapy, also known as “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy, seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Denounced as ineffective and harmful by a majority of mental health and medical organizations, the actual “therapy” can vary widely, from berating a person with Bible verses, to plunging them in ice baths, to forced vomiting.
Typically, legislation seeking to ban the therapy either attacks it by regulating the type of therapy that licensed health professionals can legally engage in, or prosecutes conversion therapy as a form of consumer fraud for promising to deliver a result — changing sexual orientation or gender identity — that it cannot guarantee.
So far, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed bills to ban conversion therapy on minors, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed an executive order prohibiting insurance companies from providing coverage for the therapy. In addition, 34 municipalities in five other states have passed their own prohibitions.
“We’ve defended the laws [banning conversion therapy] when they’ve been enacted,” says Carolyn Reyes, coordinator of the Born Perfect Campaign. “When we’ve been challenged, we’ve successfully defended those in court. There has been some state and administrative advocacy, primarily getting child advocacy and juvenile justice agencies to create policies that prohibit any efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity when they’re in state custody.
“We also have public education efforts, because part of eradicating conversion therapy is actually getting rid of the client base, and educating people about the harms of conversion therapy and the alternatives to it.”
Advocates, meanwhile, are aggressively pursuing the legislative route, pushing bills to ban the practice in at least 10 additional states this year.
Opponents of conversion therapy are most heartened by progress in Washington State, where a switch in party control of the Senate in favor of Democrats meant that a proposed ban would no longer be killed in committee. Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to pass the bill, which cleared a procedural hurdle in the House this week. If it passes, as expected, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the bill into law.
Other states that seem close to potentially passing bans on conversion therapy include Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, where lawmakers in the State House of Representatives reconsidered and passed a bill that had fallen one vote short in January.
Interestingly, all four of those other states have Republican governors. But advocates note that 40 percent of all conversion therapy bans have been signed into law by a Republican, proving that this is not necessarily a partisan issue.
“One thing that’s heartening to see is what’s going on in New Hampshire,” says Reyes. “The legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, and this has been able to show us how much bipartisan support these bills are getting. We’re seeing bills sponsored by Republicans, bills being signed into law by Republican governors, so people are beginning to understand that this is about protecting children.”
Another prospective ban could pass in Hawaii, where support for a ban on conversion therapy has emerged as a key issue in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, who announced his support for a Senate bill to ban the therapy, is being attacked by his rivals for what they say is a last-minute, politically expedient reversal.
Chin, a pastor, recently apologized for giving an anti-gay speech during a church service more than 20 years ago, in 1995, in which he decried tolerance of homosexuality. Chin maintains that his views have since evolved, as evidenced by his advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community during his stint as Hawaii’s Attorney General.
State Rep. Kaniela Ing, one of Chin’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, says the lieutenant governor is being disingenuous, as he failed to support a nearly identical House bill that Ing had introduced calling for a ban on conversion therapy.
“Doug Chin has spent his entire adult life as a conservative pastor preaching anti-gay and anti-choice sermons,” Ing said in a statement. “In 2016, his church held a pray-the-gay-away conference, so it’s very frustrating to me to see him flip-flop now that he is running for Congress and voters are questioning his right-wing beliefs.
“I am incredibly disappointed to see my opponent use this kind of issue for political gain,” Ing continued. “Children are committing suicide over conversion therapy; it’s a matter of life and death, not winning or losing an election.”
Despite these successes, bans on conversion therapy have struggled to gain traction in other states, such as Michigan, Florida, Missouri, Arizona, and Virginia. But advocates say that they’re learning valuable lessons, even in places where bans fail to pass.
“One of the main things we’re seeing as these bills are brought forward is a shining of light on how prevalent this practice is,” says Xavier Persad, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign. Persad notes that opponents of a ban often attempt to argue that the practice of conversion therapy is not widespread, and should therefore not be regulated.
However, a recent study by the Williams Institute, a think-tank at the UCLA School of Law that specializes in researching LGBTQ issues, found that almost 700,000 LGBTQ adults have been subjected to conversion therapy at some point in their lives, half of them as minors. That same study found that 20,000 LGBTQ youth in states without bans are likely to be subjected to the therapy at the hands of a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of eighteen.
“We’ve heard testimony in places from survivors, from mental health professionals who have treated people suffering from the negative effects of conversion therapy,” says Persad. “The evidence is disproportionately on our side.
“Every major medical and mental health organization has come out against conversion therapy, has affirmed that it does not work, and that it is particularly harmful for LGBTQ youth.”
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