In June, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities held a hearing to consider legislation (S.62/H.1190) that would ban conversion therapy, i.e., therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Rep. Kay Khan (D-11th Middlesex) filed the original bill in 2015; she and Sen. Mark C. Montigny (D-2nd Bristol and Plymouth) jointly filed the most recent bill earlier this year.
“The bill will ban deceptive conversion practices that can lead to depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal and suicidality,” according to a fact sheet provided by Rep. Khan’s office. While the bill aims “…to protect minors from harmful, fraudulent and abusive practices,” it does not violate First Amendment rights or prevent therapists from using accepted practices and applies only to those under the age of 18.
The fact sheet also states that 25 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatricians, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, have condemned the practice and 26 agencies, including the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and MassEquality, have formed a coalition to ban conversion therapy in Massachusetts.
Deborah Shields, J.D, MPH, executive director of MassEquality, reported that her organization wrote the bill together with the Massachusetts Psychological Association to ensure that the “…wording allowed therapists to discuss matters with the client in a helpful and supportive way.” She explained that treatment cannot “…mandate any outcome…” but rather should represent a collaborative effort between the patient and the therapist.
To prepare arguments for the bill, MassEquality reviewed lawsuits other states had filed that addressed religious discrimination and consumer fraud charges related to conversion therapy. Shields explained that these lawsuits discredited claims that the therapy could change a person’s sexual orientation.
According to Shields, MassEquality also conducted a thorough investigation to determine how prevalent conversion therapy is in Massachusetts.
“Most of the time, this happens out of state, but no one would admit to practicing this therapy,” she said, pointing out that therapists who do practice conversion therapy escape scrutiny by “reformulating their advertising.”
Moreover, she indicated that no governing body collects data on this matter so it’s difficult to obtain accurate statistics. “But you hear, anecdotally, tragic stories about people being shamed and humiliated.”
Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Coalition to Ban Conversion Therapy for Minors, is leading the lobbying effort on the bill. She emphasized the importance of this bill to the LGBT community and their families.
“Conversion therapy has been roundly discredited by the medical profession as a valid form of therapy. When dealing with young people, it often leads to depression and suicidality,” she said. “Many former practitioners of conversion therapy have acknowledged in the last five to 10 years that the practice is a scam and rarely, if ever, worked. Several of them have actually apologized for practicing and touting it.”
While Isaacson acknowledges the right of religious groups to preach an anti-gay message, she said, “It is imperative that licensed practitioners of therapy work within whatever guidelines their profession has established.”
According to Isaacson, this bill “will protect young people from licensed therapists who would impose on them a doctrine that they are ‘broken’ because they are LGBT and that they need to be ‘fixed.’”
If the bill passes, it will enable the licensing board to take disciplinary action if a licensed mental health professional does practice conversion therapy.
Isaacson anticipates a challenge ahead. “The bill will not enjoy smooth sailing in the legislature. We have a very vocal opposition, which is well funded by national anti-LGBT radical right groups,” she said. “But we have many sponsors for the bill and are committed to fight through to try and get the bill passed this legislative session.”
By Phyllis Hanlon