It’s hard to imagine the Trump presidency going down in history as a fantastic time for LGBT rights. And yet LGBT people have been scoring several successive victories on the state and local level on a particularly critical issue: making conversion therapy a crime.
Since Donald Trump and Mike Pence took office, five states—New Mexico, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington—have banned the medically condemned practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation and gender identity, bringing the total number of U.S. states with such bans up to 10.
Several Florida municipalities, major cities like Philadelphia and New York, and other smaller cities have also now banned conversion therapy during the Trump-Pence administration.
These bans on conversion or “reparative,” therapy are still coming with seemingly accelerated momentum: As Amber Phillips noted in her recent Washington Post appraisal of state-level LGBT victories, it seems “likely” that over a dozen states and D.C. will have made it illegal to subject a minor to this ostensibly therapeutic but demonstrably cruel practice by the end of the legislative session.
A conversion therapy ban in Maryland, as Into reported, is basically a done deal now that it has passed the House of Delegates.
As Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty highlighted, one of the most moving speakers in support of the impending Maryland ban was bisexual Republican delegate Meagan Simonaire who shared a story about a girl who underwent conversion therapy and experienced “significant pain, self-loathing, and deep depression”—all before disclosing that she herself was the subject of the story.
Just this week the Hawaii House of Representatives voted in favor of a conversion therapy ban, as Into also noted. And in the opposite corner of the country, the Maine House narrowly voted in favor of a conversion therapy ban after a lengthy debate, as the Portland Press Herald reported on Thursday.
“I know there are young people who are far more vulnerable than I was back then,” said Democratic representative and bill sponsor Ryan Fecteau. “I want to protect them from the harm that can come from a trusted professional telling them one way or another, that they are broken, that the core truth of who they are is wrong and even disgusting.”
Lawmakers of all political affiliations are seeing conversion therapy for what it is—and taking decisive action to stamp it out.
Although a proposed ban recently failed in Virginia, the success stories of the last two years are far outweighing the failures. This is one rare LGBT-related area in which the United States appears to be outperforming Canada and the U.K., which have tended to trend ahead of America in terms of formal LGBT protections.
The U.K. has nationwide discrimination protections for LGBT people but still hasn’t banned conversion therapy, even though as Stonewall notes, “all major counseling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the [National Health Service] have concluded that conversion therapy is dangerous and have condemned it.”
(The European country of Malta, on the other hand, became the first in the continent to ban conversion therapy in 2016, and as NBC News reported, and now charges a fine of up to 10,000 euros with a brief jail sentence for a single violation.)
In Canada, the province of Ontario has a ban on conversion therapy in place and the Manitoba province website states that “conversion therapy can have no place in the province’s public health-care system” but the city of Vancouver has not yet done so, and no other provinces have banned it despite impassioned pleas from LGBT advocates.
“Where are the provinces?” asked Daily Xtra columnist Rob Salerno in fall 2017. “Why haven’t they stepped up to ban conversion therapy outright?”
The relative inaction on the issue internationally only brings the momentum to ban conversion therapy in the U.S. into sharper relief: By the end of 2018, if the expected state-level bans fall into place, around a third of the U.S. population will live in a state or municipality where conversion therapy is illegal.
That’s no small feat for a country where anti-LGBT groups currently hold as much sway as they do on a federal level.
These bans won’t just pay hypothetical dividends, either: They will save real children’s lives. In January of this year, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 77,000 LGBT minors in the United States today will be subjected to conversion therapy by the time they turn 18, whether it happens in the office of a licensed health professional or a religious adviser.
That would only add to the estimated total of nearly 700,000 American adults who have already gone through some form of conversion therapy in their lives.
“The potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great and include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior,” the American Psychiatric Association warns, and the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that “it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”
Conversion therapy is both pointless and painful. At its best, it can inflict considerable psychological damage on a child without changing their sexual orientation or gender identity whatsoever.
At its worst, it can lead to suicide, as appeared to happen in the 2015 case of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn, whose death prompted calls for a failed federal ban on conversion therapy called “Leelah’s Law.”
State and local-level conversion therapy bans, by comparison, don’t always make front-page national news, appearing more often in local papers or LGBT-specific outlets. But there is, as writer Nico Lang put it last year, a “national movement” growing around these bills that will benefit the lives of LGBT youth for generations to come.
“2017 could prove a watershed year in the push to ban the practice,” Lang predicted, and he was right: Before 2017, five states—New Jersey, California, Oregon, Illinois and Vermont—banned conversion therapy over a time span ranging from 2012 to 2016. Since that year, that total has now doubled.
That speed seems to be a testament to the agility with which state-level LGBT organizations and national LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights can coordinate to get this legislation passed locally.
Democratic senators have tried to introduce federal legislation like “Leelah’s Law” to ban conversion therapy nationwide but in a Republican-controlled Washington, such a move is mostly a symbolic gesture.
By contrast, on the state and local level, it is much easier to find and build a broad base of support for conversion therapy bans—and as Mark Joseph Stern has recently noted for Slate, at least four Republican governors, including Chris Christie, have now signed conversion therapy bans. Maryland governor Larry Hogan, who said he would sign the coming conversion therapy ban, is also a Republican.
There is perhaps no other LGBT-related issue that has garnered such bipartisan levels of support—and it’s easy to see why: There’s a broad consensus in this country that conversion therapy is bad—or, at least, ineffective.
A 2014 YouGov poll found that only eight percent of respondents believed it was possible to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight, with 28 percent answering they were “not sure.” Other polling data cited by the Williams Institute suggests that sizable majorities in states like Florida and Virginia believe conversion therapy should be banned.
So although the 2016 GOP platform technically included support for conversion therapy—largely, it seems, as a result of influential anti-LGBT figures like Family Research Council president Tony Perkins—it’s clear that most Americans, and plenty of Republican elected officials, see this issue as a no-brainer: Conversion therapy doesn’t work and is potentially deadly, ergo it shouldn’t be practiced on children.
That's not to say the efforts to ban conversion therapy in the U.S. won’t hit a deep red wall. Indeed, bans have been proposed in Republican-controlled states like Kansas and Idaho but don’t seem likely to pass anytime soon. But the fact that more moderate Republican governors have signed such bills when they do manage to reach their desks is a promising sign.
It might seem too good to be true—or too delicious an irony— that the state of conversion therapy in the United States would deteriorate so rapidly when the Current vice president is someone who has not condemned the practice in his own words and once campaigned on redirecting money from an HIV program to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
But that’s exactly what’s happening. Conversion therapy isn’t dying a slow and painful death, but a quick one. The Trump administration may not be remembered as a golden age for LGBT folks, but it will almost certainly go down in history as the moment the tide turned against conversion therapy.