Metro Weekly

Minnesota Democrats Pushing for Ban on Conversion Therapy

Democrats are hoping to approve law prohibiting therapists from attempting to forcibly change LGBTQ patients' identities.

Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul) (left); Minnesota House chamber – Photo: JP Ellgen, via Flickr.

Minnesota Democratic lawmakers are pushing a bill prohibiting licensed therapists from attempting to forcibly change any minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The House Human Services Policy Committee approved a bill banning the practice, moving it on to the House Health Finance and Policy Committee, which is slated to take up the bill on Tuesday. Approval by the human services committee pushes the bill one step closer to ultimately being signed into effect by Gov. Tim Walz (DFL), an LGBTQ ally.

Walz previously signed an executive order in 2021 barring the use of state funds to pay for conversion therapy, and has expressed support for an official ban in the past. But while previous legislative sessions have seen the bill pass the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled House of Representatives, the bill was unable to gain any traction in the GOP-controlled state senate. 

However, after Democrats gained control of the upper chamber in the 2022 midterm elections, there is now a more viable path for a measure seeking to ban harmful attempts to forcibly change a person’s LGBTQ identity.

“We absolutely must move past this idea that queer people can choose their sexuality and gender identity and let them show up as their full, authentic, glorious selves,” Rep. Athena Hollins, (DFL-St. Paul), the lead author of the bill, told lawmakers as she testified in favor of the bill, according to Minneapolis NBC affiliate KARE

If the ban is ultimately signed into law, Minnesota would become the 21st state to prohibit therapists from subjecting minors to conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy can take two forms: the first, known as “talk therapy,” in which a therapist seeks to change a person’s identity through non-physical means, either by talking or praying over the person; and a second form, which often includes more extreme forms of therapy, in which patients may be subjected to electroshock therapy, induced vomiting, or other types of “aversion therapy” that seek to associate feelings of same-sex attraction or gender-nonconformity with a negative physical reaction. It is that latter form that particularly has led proponents to condemn conversion therapy.

Most major medical organizations, including American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatry Association, have previously come out against conversion therapy, calling it ineffective and noting that those subjected to it often have more negative mental health outcomes.

A peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project that was published in the American Journal of Public Health previously found that LGBTQ youth subjected to conversion therapy were twice as likely as those not subjected to the therapy to attempt suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts.

A similar study in JAMA Pediatrics estimates that the practice of conversion therapy and its negative outcomes — including increased instances of substance abuse, as well as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, cost the United States an estimated $9.23 billion annually. 

Mathew Shurka, the co-founder of Born Perfect, a campaign launched by the National Center for Lesbian Rights that seeks to inform people about the harms of conversion therapy and ban the practice in all 50 states, told lawmakers there are at least 63 active conversion therapists in Minnesota, and a number of other organizations regularly make referrals to those therapists.

Shurka, a self-identified survivor of conversion therapy, told the panel of lawmakers that his parents spent more than $30,000 on conversion therapy trying to change his sexual orientation from the time he was 16 until he turned 21.

As part of his therapy, Shurka was directed to avoid contact with the female sex and spend as much time as possible with other men in order to form healthy, non-sexual relationships with them, according to a testimonial he penned for MTV News. Eventually, when Shurka began having sex with women, but was crippled by overwhelming anxiety, his therapist recommended he take Viagra. 

Another witness testifying in favor of the bill, Senate Judge-Yoakam, a University of Minnesota Medical School student, said that her best friend, Abby, had been forced to undergo conversion therapy between the ages of 10 to 12.

“During the sessions, Abby was forced to partake in aversive chemical therapy where she consumed emetine, a drug that induces vomiting while viewing pornographic images,” Judge-Yoakam said. “She was hooked up to electrodes and shocked, which left her with lifetime PTSD.”

But opponents of the bill claimed that the more extreme examples of conversion therapy — like those depicted in films such as Boy Erased — are not all that common.

“The therapy ban bill is totally unnecessary for professional mental health providers. It’s like applying suntan lotion when you’re already wearing a long sleeve shirt,” Dr. David Kirby, a clinical psychologist, told the committee. “Over the last 38 years I’ve worked with transgender children, adults as well as gay-identified men and women. I have never attempted to impose some template of conversion on them.”

Other opponents testified that voluntary religious counseling would be restricted if the bill became law — even though the bill only speaks to professionally licensed therapist acting in an official capacity, rather than as a religious adviser. Still others insist that conversion therapy may be necessary to counter pro-LGBTQ messages being promoted in schools, on social media, and in media that they claim are leading to “indoctrination” of children.

Republicans on the human services committee tried to add an amendment to the bill that would bar transgender-identifying children under the age of 18 from obtaining puberty blockers, hormones, or surgery to help them “transition” to a gender that does not match their assigned sex at birth. Such bans have been introduced by Republican lawmakers in various states throughout the country as opposition to gender-affirming care has become the cause du jour of conservative politicians.

Rep. Debra Kiel (R-Crookston), argued that the ban on gender-affirming care was needed to prevent children from experiencing remorse or regret if they later change their minds and decide they are no longer transgender.

“These are damaging, lifelong procedures,” Kiel said of gender-affirming health treatments. “The intent of this amendment is to not allow those things until children are old enough to make those personal decisions, for themselves.”

But the amendment was ultimately rejected by Democrats at the urging of Rep. Leah Finke (DFL-St. Paul), the first transgender legislator in Minnesota history.

“Conversations like the one we are having today often paint a desperate picture of trans or queer life, but the experience of life as a trans person, non-binary, gender expansive, or any LGBTQ identity is a beautiful, unique and precious thing,” Finke said. “I am grateful to be trans and I will oppose any effort to erase my community.”

Troy Stevenson, the senior advocacy campaign manager of The Trevor Project, which supports the bill, hailed Minnesota lawmakers’ attempt to protect youth from conversion therapy, especially at a time when many state legislatures have introduced bills seeking to further restrict LGBTQ visibility or rights. 

“All leading professional medical and mental health associations oppose ‘conversion therapy,’ which has been consistently associated with poor mental health outcomes and increased suicide risk,” Stevenson said in a statement. “We urge Minnesota lawmakers to support this critical legislation and join the growing number of states that have enacted these protections for LGBTQ young people.”

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