Massachusetts became the 16th state to ban conversion therapy, a method attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity by treating it as if it’s a mental illness.
Sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy,” tactics range from shaming the person to using painful physical stimulation like electric shocks. In early April, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a bill banning licensed health care professionals from providing this practice to anyone under 18.
Fifteen other states and Washington D.C. have already banned conversion therapy, with California being the first in 2012. Massachusetts joins Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, leaving only Maine among the New England states without active legislation.
However, conversations are underway as Maine’s Governor Janet Mills is in favor of such a ban. Ben Klein, senior attorney for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), issued this statement on the Massachusetts decision:
“Conversion therapy is a disgraceful remnant of the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society. It is based on the long-discredited notion that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a mental disorder or abnormality,” he said.
“This law will protect youth from the significant harm inflicted by those who engage in the antiquated practice of conversion therapy. LGBTQ youth must be able to grow up in a world in which they can thrive and develop into adults under the same conditions as their peers.”
According to a recent report from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have received conversion therapy at some point in their lives.
Approximately 350,000 undergo conversion therapy before they turn 18. A 2018 study by the Family Acceptance Project found rates of attempted suicide nearly tripled for LGBTQ young people who reported attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity by therapists and religious leaders (63% compared to 22%).
The Trevor Project, one of the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organizations for LGBTQ youth, praised Baker’s legislation.
“Many people are unaware that conversion therapy is still happening and still harming LGBTQ youth every day across the country and around the world,” said Casey Pick, Esq., Trevor Project’s senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs.
“Every state that introduces or passes legislation protecting youth from conversion therapy is an important victory and adds to the growing momentum to see this practice ended nation-wide.”
The organization has been very vocal about the harm that can be caused by conversion therapy. This opposition prompted the start of the campaign, 50 Bills 50 States, to ban the practice across the country.
Sam Brinton, Trevor Project’s head of advocacy and government affairs, told his story of conversion therapy at the organization’s annual gala this past June. He described his experience as torture, which did nothing to change his identity. That’s why he fully supports the 50 Bills 50 States initiative.
“The Trevor Project is helping to end conversion therapy in the United States with our campaign,” he said. “I am proud to say that we will submit legislation in every single state so that no child will ever be forced to go through what I did.”
The Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) opposes the ban. In its view, the legislation would label certain types of counseling for sexual orientation and gender identity as “child abuse,” which would allow the state to take custody of minor children away from parents who seek simple talk therapy for children instead of hormonal or surgical “treatments.”
In a statement in March shortly before the legislation was proposed, MFI President and General Counsel Andrew Beckwith said, “Some legislators don’t understand that the focus is on eliminating any counseling options that don’t affirm a LGBT-centric view of human sexuality,” he said.
“Counselors should be free to act in the best interest of a child, and parents should be free to choose a wait and see approach if a minor child wants gender reassignment surgery.”
Conversion therapy has been condemned and considered unethical by a number of organizations including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
By Eileen Weber