THE MASSACHUSETTS HOUSE of Representatives and the Senate recently gave overwhelming approval to a bipartisan bill banning the practice of so-called gay “conversion therapy” for minors.
Conversion therapy, a practice which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through various forms of therapy, has been widely debunked by health care professionals. The practice carries significant risk of harm for young people, including depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
“No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed,” the association wrote in a 2013 statement condemning the practice.
It is not an isolated problem. Approximately 350,000 adults in the United States received conversion therapy treatment as adolescents, according to a study last year by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. They estimate that another 20,000 young people in states where the practice is not currently banned will receive conversion therapy from a licensed professional before they reach adulthood. The dangers of conversion therapy were recently dramatized in the film “Boy Erased” based on a memoir by Garrard Conley, who was forced into conversion therapy by his parents.
The good news is that laws are changing. Today there are now conversion therapy bans on the books and in force in 15 different states and the District of Columbia. Massachusetts is poised to join this list and put a stop to this discredited practice, but now opponents are mounting a campaign against the bill.
Since there is no medical science or evidence-based rationale to allow conversion therapy on minors, opponents of the bill have instead resorted to scare tactics with brazenly false claims about government mandated hormone treatments, loss of parental rights, or “criminalizing” therapy.
These shameful attempts to scare parents are patently false. The legislation does one thing: prohibit state licensed health care providers from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or advertise those services. That is all.
The House bill was carefully drafted to prohibit this harmful practice on minors –– who cannot meaningfully offer consent –– while still allowing consenting adults to do so if they wish. Religious or faith leaders are not prevented from providing pastoral counseling in any way, even if their views may run contrary to medical professionals.
Faith leaders who may also be licensed health care providers remain free to share their own views on conversion therapy, discuss or recommend options with their clients, or even hand out informational literature. The bill does not impinge on free speech; it merely limits the practice of conversion therapy, in whatever form that may take.
The Massachusetts bill is closely modelled on a successful California law which has been well vetted and upheld in federal court, surviving constitutional challenges on grounds of free speech and religious liberty. The US Supreme Court even had a chance to weigh in but rejected appeals –– twice –– and let the law stand.
Under the bill, if a licensed therapist did attempt to forcibly change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity they could face sanctions from their licensing board. Contrary to opponents’ claims, there is no criminal liability and nothing in the bill imposes any new burden or duty on a parent.
All the leading medical and scientific experts have condemned the practice of conversion therapy on minors. Here in Massachusetts we have a duty to take action to protect our vulnerable youth and ensure that those health care professionals who operate under the auspices of a state license do so based on medically sound, professional conduct.
The bill passed by the Legislature accomplishes this goal while protecting the civil rights of all. It’s time for Massachusetts to become the 16th state to ban this outdated practice.
Kay Khan is the state representative from Newton and the House chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Josh Cutler is the state representative from Duxbury and the vice chair of the same committee.