Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order barring conversion therapy, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, for people of all ages.
Taking unilateral action after the failure of the Republican-led legislature to even consider bills seeking to ban conversion therapy for minors, Wolf has directed state agencies to discourage the practice and instead promote evidence-based practices for supporting LGBTQ individuals who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The order also directs the state’s Department of Human Services, Insurance Department, and other agencies to ensure state funds, programs, and contracts are not being used to subject minors to conversion therapy, refer people to therapists who engage in the practice, or provide reimbursement for the therapy. It also directs agencies to investigate any reports of claims that have been paid for conversion therapy through the state’s Medicaid program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or private insurance.
The order ensures training for child welfare staff to support LGBTQ youth and their families, and sets the stage for licensing boards to discipline health professionals who violate ethical or professional standards by providing the therapy. The order does not deal with those who perform conversion therapy in a religious role, such as a priest, rabbi, or church elder.
Beyond prohibiting reimbursement for conversion therapy, the executive order directs the commonwealth’s Insurance Department to investigate complaints that insurers are automatically or categorically denying coverage for gender-affirming health care treatments. Lastly, the order encourages agencies to review and update health care and insurance forms using, where possible, gender-neutral language, as well as forms collecting demographic information to allow for the collection of data on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Conversion therapy, which can range from talk therapy to more extreme forms of aversion therapy, such as induced vomiting, pain, or electroshock therapy, has been largely rejected as ineffective by most mainstream medical or professional health care organizations. Critics of the therapy say it can result in negative mental health outcomes for those subjected to it, increasing feelings of loneliness, depression, or suicidal ideation.
For example, a peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project, the nation’s largest LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that LGBTQ youth subjected to conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide at some point, and more than 2.5 times more likely to report multiple suicide attempts over the past year.
Another peer-reviewed study published in JAMA Pediatrics in March found that the practice of conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth and its associated harms — including substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts — cost an estimated $9.23 billion in the United States annually.
“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” Wolf said in a statement. “This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it. This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”
Wolf’s executive order makes Pennsylvania the 26th state, and 28th jurisdiction in the United States (including D.C. and Puerto Rico) to either fully or partially ban the practice of conversion therapy, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank focused that studies LGBTQ policies. A federal court has barred three states — Alabama, Georgia, and Florida — from enforcing bans on conversion therapy, which have solely passed at the local city or county level, but have failed to gain traction in those states’ Republican-led legislatures.
Matthew Shurka, a conversion therapy survivor and co-founder of Born Perfect, a national campaign aimed at ending conversion therapy on minors, praised Wolf’s actions as beneficial for LGBTQ youth.
“LGBTQ kids and their families are targeted by so-called therapists causing lifelong harm,” Shurka said in a statement. “This executive order demonstrates that our political offices have the power to protect our youth and it is their responsibility to do so. … We hope that even more governors will take note and enact similar measures to ensure that no state funds are being misused to pay for this deadly practice.”
The Trevor Project, which has long advocated for statewide bans on conversion therapy, will be hosting a town hall meeting on Wednesday night at 6 p.m. at the William Way LGBT Community Center, in Philadelphia, to discuss the impact of the executive order.
“Taxpayers’ dollars must never again be spent on the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion ‘therapy’ — which has been consistently associated with increased suicide risk and an estimated $9.23 billion economic burden in the U.S.,” Troy Stevenson, the senior campaign manager for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement. “We urge the state legislature to pass comprehensive state-wide protections and for governors across the nation to follow the Keystone State’s lead in ending this abusive practice.”
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