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States Move to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia currently ban conversion therapy, which seeks to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia currently ban conversion therapy, which seeks to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity. Shutterstock

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Massachusetts lawmakers approved a bill to outlaw the therapy, which aims to change their sexual orientation, for young people.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts last week passed a bill banning conversion therapy for minors, sending the legislation to the governor and putting the state on the cusp of being the 16th to outlaw the controversial practice.

Conversion therapy is a practice where counselors attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through therapy that can include shock treatments, hypnosis and the teaching of “heterosexual dating skills.” The practice is based on the premise that being gay is a defect that requires a cure, and has been condemned by the medical establishment.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has said he is “inclined to support” the legislation, which passed the House 147-8 and the Senate 34-0. As passed, the bill prohibits state-licensed health-care providers (including doctors, therapists and social workers) from attempting or advertising to change a minor's sexual orientation or gender identity. Providers found in violation of the law would be disciplined by their licensing boards, which may include having their licenses suspended or revoked.

“Ultimately, we all know this bill will ensure that children receive therapy in a healthy, evidence-based and medically sound manner, not one which fosters an atmosphere of self-hate, prejudice and intolerance," Rep. Kay Khan, who authored the legislation, told NewNowNext. "Massachusetts has always been a trailblazer in advancing civil rights and eliminating discrimination in health care settings for the LGBTQ community. This bill is a necessary extension of these historic commitments."

Lawmakers passed a similar bill last year but failed to get it to the governor for signature before the end of the legislative session.

"We are thrilled that the legislative leadership chose to act so quickly on this important legislation," Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, told State House News Service. "We are deeply grateful for the leadership of both the speaker and the Senate president. This bill will help protect a lot of kids from the cruelties and abuse of conversion therapy."

Eight House Republicans voted against the bill, including Rep. Shawn Dooley and Rep. Marc Lombardo, who told the Lowell Sun he is “100 percent opposed to conversion therapy. I don't believe someone's sexuality can be altered or changed. I want to be crystal clear on that."

His objection to the bill lay in concerns that a portion of the legislation banning “speech-only” practices is a violation of the First Amendment, he said.

"Now if you tell a 12-year-old boy that maybe he should put off genitalia reassignment surgery for a few years and continue exploring this decision, that would be enough for a therapist to lose their medical license in this state," he told the Sun. "That type of conversation shouldn't be banned."

If Baker signs the bill, Massachusetts would join 15 states and the District of Columbia in banning the practice. The governor of Puerto Rico last month signed an executive order prohibiting conversion therapy on the island after the House of Representatives there declined to vote on a related bill that had already passed the Senate, and North Carolina lawmakers this week introduced a bill to ban the practice there.

“We believe that members of the LGBTQ community are children of God, as are we all, and call out the dangerous and discredited practice of so-called conversion therapy," N.C. Sen. Terry Van Duyn said at a press conference announcing the legislation.

Maine lawmakers passed a similar bill last year that was later vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. A conversion therapy ban bill was reintroduced there this year, while a federal lawmaker is seeking to prohibit Medicaid funds from being used to pay for the practice.

Lawmakers in Utah were poised to pass a similar bill last month that would have banned “any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client.” Republican Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed the legislation, and the Mormon church said it would not oppose the bill.

But then a House committee favored a substitute bill that removed “gender identity” from the language and defined conversion therapy only as practices that promise “a complete and permanent change in the patient or client’s sexual orientation” and causes “physical discomfort through aversive treatment that causes nausea, vomiting or other unpleasant physical sensations,” including electric shock therapy.

Advocates balked, the bill’s original sponsor pulled his support and the legislation was tabled indefinitely. Two gay rights advocates resigned from the governor’s task force on suicide, telling Herbert in a letter, “you have turned your back on LGBTQ youth and the medical and mental health establishment.”

“You effectively cast your lot with a band of discredited and dangerous conversion therapists, who are still practicing techniques that harm youth—sometimes lethally,” wrote Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “It is clear you have no interest in keeping your promise, nor are you interested in the plight of LGBTQ youth.”

Herbert apologized to a group of young protesters for the failed bill, saying, “I realize there is much I do not understand about the issues that LGBTQ youth face every day. We have had an enormous misunderstanding, and I’m sorry.”

The governor also said that he and the original bill’s main sponsor would be working together on a ban, according to the Deseret News. The legislation could come back during a special session later this year.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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