Metro Weekly

Youth conversion therapy bans make headway in several states

Washington State all but certain to become 10th state to ban "sexual orientation change efforts"

Photo by Ward Morrison

In a sign of growing support for protecting LGBTQ youth, a number of bills banning conversion therapy moved forward in various state legislatures or county councils. 

So far, only nine state legislatures have passed statewide bans prohibiting mental health professionals and counselors from subjecting youth to practices designed to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. But New York has passed a series of executive orders blocking insurance companies from providing coverage for conversion therapy, and outright bans have passed in Washington, D.C. and several municipalities in various states.

Now, Washington State is all but assured to become the tenth state to ban the practice legislatively. Earlier this week, the Washington State Senate concurred with a series of friendly amendments designed to make the bill more palatable to the general public. The amendments clarify that religious leaders who are licensed therapists will not be penalized for providing counseling, so long as they are not attempting to change a youth’s LGBTQ identity while acting in a professional capacity.

After concurring on the amendments, the Senate sent it to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature into law. Inslee, a former congressman and two-term governor, has amassed a pro-LGBTQ record during his time in politics, is almost certain to sign the bill.

“Children across the Evergreen State deserve to live their lives authentically and should never be subjected to the abusive practice of so-called conversion therapy,” JoDee Winterhof, the senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “It’s time for Washington to join the growing number of states and municipalities who are enacting these critical protections.”

Conversion bans have also moved forward in Hawaii and Maine this week. The Hawaii State Senate passed a bill banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors, and has sent the bill along to the House of Representatives. If it passes there, Gov. David Ige (D) is expected to sign it into law.

In Maine, a House committee approved a bill banning conversion therapy, but the two committee members who voted against it offered a minority report that would ban physical methods of conversion therapy, such as electroshock therapy, ice baths, forced vomiting, or physical beatings. However, the minority report would allow faith-based counselors to continue to engage in “talk therapy” or other forms of verbal harassment, aimed at changing youths’ sexual orientation or gender identity.

Both the committee-approved bill and the minority report will be voted upon by the full House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats. If either measure passes there, it will go on to the State Senate, which Republicans control by one seat. It is unclear whether Gov. Paul LePage (R), an outspoken social conservative with a history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, would be open to signing the bill — or for that matter, even the minority report, should it pass both chambers.

In Milwaukee, a Common Council committee has approved a measure to ban conversion therapy, sending it to the full Council for review. If approved, the measure would head to the desk of Milwaukee County Executive Tom Barrett, who is expected to sign it into law. But a good deal of uncertainty remains: the bill was approved 2-0 in committee, with two other members abstaining, which may signal that there is a larger degree of opposition among the broader Council.

Lastly, in New York, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz signed into law a bill banning the practice of conversion therapy on youth, and penalties for those therapists who engage in it, in Buffalo and its nearby suburbs. Erie County legislators’ actions supplement the aforementioned insurance regulations enacted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to discourage the practice, while also stepping in where state lawmakers in Albany have refused to act.

While the Democratic-controlled New York Assembly has passed bills banning conversion therapy, those bills have been killed in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a group of dissident Democrats (primarily on fiscal issues) has partnered with Republicans to keep them in control of committees, thus resulting in LGBTQ-related bills being bottled up in committees.

County Legislator Patrick Burke (D-Buffalo), who sponsored Erie County’s ban, told The Buffalo News that passing the measure was “the right thing to do” for LGBTQ youth.

“People practicing this, even if they’re well intentioned, they’re doing something really wrong,” Burke said in a statement. “It feels really good to get this approved, settled and signed into law.”

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