America has a problem when it comes to protecting LGBT people from the discrimination and abuse that stems from the belief that being gay is problem to be fixed, or a sin to be healed. Almost 700,000 Americans have been through gay conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation with psychological or spiritual interventions. This includes 350,000 teenagers, according to a recent study by UCLA’s Williams Institute. That same study also estimates that about 20,000 LGBT teens will be treated by a mental health professional and an additional 58,000 will go through some sort of treatment from a religious advisor before their 18th birthday, often against their own will
Even though conversion therapy has been discredited by basically every mental health organization in the U.S., including the American Medical Association, it’s still legal in 41 states. That leaves 73 percent of LGBT people living in states with no protections against the practice for minors.
To understand how and why this is happening, you need to look no further than the effort from some in the young evangelical community to make conversation therapy look cool. A testimonial video created by Christian media company Anchored North has accumulated over 2.3 million views on facebook, with the catchy tagline, ‘It’s not gay to straight, it’s lost to saved’.
“The video by Anchored North is heartbreaking. It’s astonishing that a religious group that prides itself on love and family values, who also receives tax benefits, have the audacity to come up with that slogan,” conversion therapy survivor-turned-activist, Mathew Shurka told VICE Impact. Shurka is the national advisor for #BornPerfect:The Campaign To End Conversion Therapy, launched by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “This group of evangelicals are not just continuing to shame teenagers by accusing them of being lost, they are bullying, abusing, and harnessing on an epidemic of teenage suicide our country.”
Thanks to the efforts of activists like Shurka as of March 6th 2018, 23 of those states have bills pending that could end the legality of the practice, but it has been a battle to get the laws passed.
“Politicians across our nation are less willing to act on these particular bills out of fear of their constituents and whether or not they would approve of them,” Shurka added. But some politicians have been willing to act.
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Here is where the fight to protect young people in the LGBT community had gained ground:
California: Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1172 into law on on September 19, 2012, making California the first state to ban conversion therapy for minors. When asked about why he signed it, he told SFGate, “This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”
In the week leading up to his signing of the bill into law, over 50,000 Californians signed a petition through the Human Rights Campaign urging him to do so.
Connecticut: In May 2017, after a 90-minute debate with conservatives arguing that the issue should not be decided by the state, the Senate voted unanimously, 36-0, to ban conversion therapy for minors after the measure was previously passed by the state House of Representatives by 141 to 8.
Governor Dan Malloy signed the bill into law shortly after, telling reporters, “This is supported by our cultural awakening and awareness that we are a society of very different players…and we shouldn’t try to make people just like us and should recognize that some people are simply not us. But that doesn’t make them bad, and it certainly doesn’t make them mentally ill.”
Illinois: The Youth Mental Health Protection Act was signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner in August 2015.
In 2016, a group of pastors sued the state seeking to exclude clergy from the law and were granted exemption. “We want to make sure that young people in particular have access to pastoral and Biblical-based counsel if they want it, and that pastors are able to provide Bible-based counseling without any fear of legal repercussions," said Steven Stultz, a Chicago pastor who was part of the lawsuit.
This suit and exemption speaks to the complexity of trying to end the practice completely as many clergy don’t fall under the category of licensed therapists.
Nevada: In May 2017, the Silver State became the eighth state to ban conversion therapy, with Republican Governor Brian Sandoval making it illegal for psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, and other clinical counselors in Nevada to attempt anti-gay conversion therapy on anyone under 18. The bill was only passed when the senator made exemptions for religious institutions to clarify that the law was not meant to interfere with “religious liberties or rights of conscious,” according the New York Times.
New Jersey: After Assemblyman Tim Eustace, who is openly gay, sponsored a bill condemning conversion therapy as "an insidious form of child abuse,” Governor Chris Christie made New Jersey the second state to bar licensed practitioners from using conversion therapy on minors in August 2013.
Christie’s remarks on passing the law were a bit more careful than Eustace’s strong stance. Christie stated, "Government should tread carefully into this area, and I do so here reluctantly." He also acknowledged, however that “exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate."
New Mexico: A Senate bill that was co-sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria-(D) who is openly gay, and Rep. G. Andres Romero (D) won by a landslide, despite opponents claiming that such a bill would have negative effects, like discouraging a therapist from trying to help a patient out of fear of breaking the law.
In defense of the law, Rep. Romero said the victory, “confirms that our shared commitment to protecting all children from abuse transcends party labels and ideological differences.”
Oregon: In May 2015, the Beaver State became the third in the nation to end the right to practice on minors. Signed by Gov. Kate Brown, who personally identifies as bisexual, the law does not extend to religious groups offering counseling services, of which there is only one, according to local news source, Oregon Live.
Rhode Island: House lawmakers unanimously passed a law banning conversion therapy of minors in May 2017. Part of the testimony to support the timing of the bill came from, Dr. David Savitsky, the chief child psychiatrist at Gateway Healthcare, one of the leading health facilities in the state, who pointed to the Trump administration’s track record with the LGBT community.
“These folks need protections, and, if the feds aren’t going to do it, we have to do it for ourselves,” Savitsky said.
Vermont: When Gov. Peter Shumlin made conversion therapy for minors illegal in May 2016, he called it, “nothing short of child abuse.”
In a powerful press statement, he elaborated further. “It’s absurd to think that being gay or transgender is something to be cured of. At a time when the rights of LGBT individuals are under attack in other parts of the country, Vermont will continue to stand up to hatred and bigotry and show the rest of the country what tolerance, understanding, and common humanity look like.”
Washington, D.C: Though it’s not a state, the passing of an anti-conversion therapy law in the nation’s capital set a powerful example for others to follow. One of the first jurisdictions in the country to pass such a law, D.C.’s city council unanimously passed in December of 2014, shortly after California and New Jersey. In March of that year, a similar bill was withdrawn in DC’s state neighbor, Maryland. In 2018, DC’s other neighbor state, Virginia, submitted a bill of its own still making its way through the state Senate.
In response to those states that have religious exemptions, Shurka says, “Right now we are focusing on discrediting this in the mental health community, but it is a major problem that religious organizations still have the right to do this and I am confident that eventually we will have all conversion therapy practices banned period.” He points to the Church of England, which called for for a ban on the practice across their nation last year, as an example of what is possible in the U.S.
In addition to states that have passed laws, 33 cities and towns including Miami, Philadelphia, and New York City, have passed ordinances barring the practice, 19 of which are in Florida alone.