One month ago, Republican Maine Governor Paul LePage became the first in the country to veto a ban on conversion therapy. So far, 13 governors have signed laws prohibiting the practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity through medical treatment, including six Republicans.
But although Equality Maine executive director Matt Moonen found Governor LePage’s unprecedented veto “disheartening,” the LGBT advocate says that the high-stakes fight must continue.
“This really is about protecting the health and well-being of young people,” Moonen told The Daily Beast. “They should be able to expect that someone who is a licensed medical health professional, like their doctor or their counselor, would be required by the law to follow good science.”
Equality Maine’s best hope for banning conversion therapy, says Moonen, will be issuing an endorsement for a to-be-named gubernatorial candidate who could replace the two-term incumbent LePage in the forthcoming election this November. Most of the candidates would be willing to ban conversion therapy.
In fact, three out of of four potential replacements for LePage—one Democrat and two independents—tell The Daily Beast that they would sign the same bill LePage vetoed.
A spokesperson for Democratic candidate and state Attorney General Janet Mills referred The Daily Beast to a previous statement she issued immediately after LePage’s veto, calling conversion therapy “a reprehensible practice that has no medical merit.”
“Governor LePage should have signed this bill, but where he failed, I will not,” she said.
Businessman Alan Caron, one of two independent candidates, told The Daily Beast, “I find the idea of conversion therapy both repulsive and medieval. I support a ban on this practice and will sign any bill that accomplishes this goal.”
And Terry Hayes, the current state Treasurer and another independent candidate, told The Daily Beast, simply, “When I am governor, I will sign the bill.”
Republican candidate Shawn Moody did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
After LePage’s veto in July, the Democratic National Committee criticized Moody for being “silent” on the issue. Equality Maine has also issued questionnaires to each candidate—including Moody—to facilitate their forthcoming endorsement, but the deadline set by the advocacy organization has not yet passed.
Even if Moody were to win and follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by vetoing a conversion therapy ban, Moonen says there’s another option: a statewide ballot measure that would put the issue directly to the voters.
“That is something that we are keeping on the table as an option,” Moonen confirmed. “If our politicians in Augusta refuse to listen, we are certainly willing to consider going back to the people and asking them to vote to pass this on the ballot. We’ve done that before, and we could do it again.”
Indeed, Equality Maine has used this strategy in the past to great effect: in 2005, after Maine voters suspended a non-discrimination bill that had been passed by the state legislature through a people’s veto, Equality Maine lobbied against a referendum that would have formalized the veto. They won—55 percent to 45 percent.
Given public opinion polling on the conversion therapy, there’s a strong chance Equality Maine would be able to ban the medically-discredited practice via the voters.
Pew Research Center data [PDF] shows that the share of Americans who believe sexual orientation can be changed has declined from 42 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2015, while the proportion believing that sexual orientation is fixed has increased from 42 percent to 60 percent over the same time period.
A 2014 YouGov poll that asked specifically about conversion therapy painted an even more optimistic picture, finding that only eight percent of Americans believe that it can successfully change a person’s sexual orientation. By contrast, 63 percent said that it could not.
“For most people, it’s complete common sense,” Moonen told The Daily Beast. “It’s only when you get in state capitols that those folks lose common sense. We know that we would have overwhelming support here among the voters.”
Maine is currently one of the last holdouts in New England on banning conversion therapy.
In 2016, Vermont passed a law making it illegal to practice conversion therapy on minors. Connecticut and Rhode Island continued the trend in 2017 and New Hampshire successfully passed a ban this June.
That same month, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 137-14 in favor of a ban, as the AP reported—but the bill must now clear the Senate and be signed by Republican Governor Charlie Baker.
All of the states that have prohibited conversion therapy so far have done so through their legislatures, which means that if Equality Maine uses their ballot box strategy—and succeeds—Maine would become the first state to ban it through popular vote.
A conversion therapy ban is also a noticeable hole in Maine’s otherwise strong legislative protections for LGBT people.
Maine has had discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity since 2005—and hate crime legislation covering sexual orientation since 1993.
The Movement Advancement Project, which categorizes states based on their LGBT policy with descriptors ranging from “negative” to “low” to “high,” places Maine in that final camp, along with only 16 other states.
“We’ve had good progress and been one of the front-running states on [LGBT] issues in the past—and we would have loved to have been one of those again on conversion therapy,” said Moonen. “But because of this veto we’re falling behind many other states.”
Of course, there’s a strong chance that Maine could ban conversion therapy as early as next year—one way or another.
“We would love to just win a friendly governor,” Moonen said. “That would be way easier and way less expensive. But there’s only so long you can wait if politicians are ignoring you before you’ve got to consider other options.”