Battle over conversion therapy heats up at local, state, and national levels; Orlando weighs ban

Rally for formerly gay and transgender Christians in Orlando on Sept. 14 (photo via screenshot from Facebook)

Jordan Hunter is still haunted years after undergoing conversion therapy, a controversial concept that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation.

The Orlando resident, 29, was among detractors of the practice who addressed an Orange County commission meeting earlier this month, pulling out a notebook and reading aloud about the process he endured as a youth.

“You don’t tell anyone about this secret, because then they would know. They would know that you are different. That you are sinful. That you are broken. You keep this secret locked away,” Hunter read, referring to same-sex attraction.

“But one day you will confess. You will tell your pastor,” Hunter said. He described a process of ardent but ultimately unsuccessful prayer and counseling, culminating when the pastor “would like you to talk about how you overcome homosexuality in front of the entire church. And you will do as he says but, secretly, you will know that it isn’t true.”

Conversion therapy, he said, hadn’t made him straight.

Recognizing the substantial evidence that conversion therapy not only doesn’t work but also actively harms young people, 19 cities and three counties in Florida have enacted bans against practicing conversion therapy on minors, with Fort Lauderdale the latest to do so last week. Now, Democratic House member Michael Grieco of Miami is sponsoring a bill for the 2020 Florida legislative session that would protect LGBTQ youth from receiving conversion therapy.

“Conversion therapy is a dangerous, despicable and non-scientific practice that only harms people it is supposedly meant to ‘help,’” Grieco said in a written statement. “The idea that it is still legal to subject our youth to this aggressive and hurtful ‘treatment’ is unconscionable. Treating sexual orientation as a mental illness is demeaning and conversion therapy can lead to many unintended but harmful effects.”

The commission hasn’t taken a final vote yet, but the practice has defenders. Just a few days following the commission testimony, about 100 of them rallied at Lake Eloa Park in downtown Orlando during a three-hour “Freedom March.” Self-proclaimed former LGBTQ members talked about leaving behind their gay “lifestyles” to convert to Christianity.

“It’s not conversion therapy. It’s not electroshock therapy. It’s not some form of torture,” Garry Ingraham told the crowd in describing a journey that has led him to identify himself as heterosexual. “It’s saying ‘Yes to Jesus,” he said.

That event was organized by Angel Colon and Luis Javier, two survivors of the Pulse nightclub massacre who now say they are “overcomers” of homosexuality.

For years, conversion therapy techniques have included counseling, talk therapy, electric shock therapy, hypnosis, behavior and cognitive therapies, and sex therapies, as well as administration of psychotropic medications.

Mainstream professional groups including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics oppose the practice. A recent Harvard Medical School study published in the Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry of more than 27,000 transgender adults found that conversion therapy leads to “adverse mental health outcomes, include suicide attempts.”

“Conversion therapy is fraudulent, dangerous, and inflicts immeasurable harm on its victims,” said House Democrat Anna Eskamani of Orlando, who is co-sponsoring Grieco’s bill. In the state Senate, Miami Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez has filed a companion bill.

Similar proposals have been introduced during nearly every legislative session over the past decade, but the Republican-led Legislature hasn’t approved them.

“In our meetings, we have heard concerns that the ban could be considered on a state or federal level. Believe me, we would love that, but in theory, the fact is that year after year the bills have been filed to ban conversion therapy in Tallahassee, and they’re never heard,” Orlando activist Eric Rollings told the Orange County commissioners. “Leadership won’t hear these bills. This is why we want to move forward on a local level.”

However, the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel has filed lawsuits against ordinances that ban conversion therapy for minors in Palm Beach County, Tampa and Boca Raton.

Roger Gannam is assistant vice president of legal affairs for the Liberty Counsel. He told the Florida Phoenix that local governments are ill-equipped to accurately monitor what therapists do.

“They don’t have boards of professionals like the state of Florida does,” he said. “They don’t have boards of licensed marital and family therapists. They don’t have boards of licensed professionals to review the conduct of a counselor who supposedly violates this ordinance. So, there’s really no effective way to enforce it. It reveals the truly political nature of this. “

Gannam also questions anecdotal evidence that LGBTQ youth have been subjected to “horror stories” that he claims are “always short on details and never reveal a time or a name of anyone involved … and yet the conclusion is that this is really bad and it must be stopped.”

In its lawsuit against Palm Beach County and Boca Raton, the Liberty Counsel touts a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association finding said that conclusions couldn’t be drawn about the “effectiveness or the harm” that may result from what it calls “sexual orientation change efforts.”

But on the very first page of the 140 page report, the authors write that a “review of the peer-reviewed journal literature on sexual orientation change efforts concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of (sexual orientation change efforts) practitioners and advocates.”

A June 2019 report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 16,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 to 17 will undergo conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before the age of 18 in the 32 states such as Florida that allow the practice.

According to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, more than 50 percent of the transgendered youth who have experienced conversion therapy have considered attempting suicide this year alone, said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy at that organization. He testified during the recent hearings in Orange County.

Brinton said he underwent conversion therapy himself while growing up in Central Florida.

Tampa’s ordinance fines state licensed therapists and counselors $1,000 for a first offense of using conversion therapy on a minor, and $5,000 for repeated offenses – higher sanctions than anywhere else in the state.

Tampa council member Guido Maniscalco, who introduced the ordinance, said at the time of the original vote that the fines would send a “strong message” to violators. (Later, Maniscalco told the Phoenix that, given the city’s still pending litigation against the Liberty Council, the city attorney had instructed him not to speak about the topic to news reporters.)

Critics of conversion therapy received validation of sorts when a man who is said to have founded one of the biggest conversion therapy programs in the United States. McKrae Game, came out as gay earlier this month in a South Carolina newspaper.

“I believe ex-gay ministry is a lie; conversion therapy is a lie, it’s very harmful,” Game told the Charleston Post and Courier.

Meanwhile, the odds of the Republican-led Legislature passing a ban on conversion therapy aren’t very high in Florida.

In Washington, D.C., two bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this year that would ban conversion therapy. One is the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act and the other is the Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act. Both bills have several Florida Democrats as co-sponsors.

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