In a significant victory for LGBTQ advocates, the city of Virginia Beach will ask the Virginia General Assembly to pass a statewide ban on conversion therapy.
The legislative request was added, without objection, by openly gay Virginia Beach Councilmember Michael Berlucchi and the city’s Human Rights Commission, to a list of priorities that the city would like to see accomplished next year.
Because Virginia is a “Dillon’s Rule” state, there are many actions that individual cities and counties cannot take because they would overstep their authority and go beyond what has been allowed by the state’s legislature.
That means that actions, such as placing regulations on mental health therapists, fall under the purview of the state, which may choose to take action either through executive rule-making or by putting a proposal up for a vote before both houses of the General Assembly.
As Virginia’s largest independent city, and its second-most populous jurisdiction, Virginia Beach putting its stamp of approval on a ban has significant implications.
For one, it alerts reticent lawmakers in Richmond — particularly Republicans, who make up a majority of the city’s elected legislators — that a change is desired and may encourage other municipalities to throw their weight behind calls for a ban.
“It’s always important to do the right thing,” Berlucchi told the Virginia Mercury, an online newspaper covering the Old Dominion. “It’s important to raise awareness of the fact that our neighbors and our friends are being subjected to this treatment. It’s almost 2020, we’re evolving as a community, and we’re becoming a more inclusive community that warmly embraces everyone.”
In September, the Richmond City Council adopted a non-binding resolution condemning conversion therapy and calling on the General Assembly to pass a bill that would prohibit licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors in their care. The city has not yet finalized its legislative agenda.
In past years, bills to ban conversion therapy have been introduced by Democrats, but have been bottled up in committees run by Republicans in both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a measure that would have allowed some forms of sexual orientation change efforts so long as they were limited to “talk therapy” and did not inflict physical harm.
But the bill was eventually reconsidered and sent back to committee following a request from Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Upperville).
Conversion therapy is considered highly controversial by most major mental health and medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, who have deemed the therapy ineffective and expressed concerns about its impacts on mental health.
Last year, a study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that young adults who were subjected to conversion therapy efforts as adolescents experienced higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and substance abuse problems, as well as lower self-esteem and greater dissatisfaction with their life in general.
Also last year, a coalition of child welfare, educational, and mental health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Associations, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the Child Welfare League of America, signed their names to a letter denouncing conversion therapy and pointing to similar negative outcomes for the mental health of those subjected to it.
In Virginia, the two sponsors of a 2018 bill to ban conversion therapy made similar arguments, with Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) comparing it to outdated medical treatments like using leeches for bleeding in order to cure fevers, and Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) noting that the therapy is “based on the false assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder or a sin.”
This summer, the state Board of Psychology and Board of Counseling both adopted guidance stating that licensed therapists who engage in conversion therapy on minors could be subject to disciplinary action, citing the potential for the therapy to “jeopardiz[e] the health and well-being of patients.”
Proponents of the therapy say that a ban would violate the First Amendment rights of a person who wishes to subject themselves to the therapy (despite the fact that it is the parents of LGBTQ or questioning children who often make the decision to enroll in conversion therapy, regardless of the minor’s feelings or thoughts on the issue), as well as the free speech rights and personal religious beliefs of the therapist.
“The entire move is an attempt to limit people’s freedom in a way that these people are seeking this counselor,” Victoria Cobb, the president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, told the members of the Richmond City Council when they passed the non-binding resolution last month. “You don’t need Christian values to think freedom for counselors and their clients — is absolutely what this country is all about. We don’t limit people’s ability to get a service that they’re looking for.”
But Berlucchi rejects that argument, saying therapists should simply be required to uphold ethical and professional standards for treating patients or clients who come to them seeking counseling.
“What we’re simply asking is that psychological care be done in concert with the professional standards of the field and there are no professional standards for conversion therapy,” he said. “The practice has been discredited.”