Elections, films help effort to ban gay conversion therapy

NEW YORK — Activists urging more states to ban gay conversion therapy for minors are expecting major gains in 2019, thanks to midterm election results and the buzz generated by two well-reviewed films.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws prohibiting licensed therapists from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation. Leaders of a national campaign to ban the practice are hopeful that at least four more states — Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and New York — will join the ranks in the upcoming legislative sessions.

“We’d be disappointed if we don’t get those this year — they’re overdue,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights , one of the groups campaigning to impose bans in all 50 states.

The campaign has gained momentum in recent months thanks to the national release of two films dramatizing the experiences of youths who went through conversion therapy — “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and the higher-profile “Boy Erased” starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.

Sam Brinton of the Trevor Project , another of groups leading the ban campaign, said thousands of people have signed up to assist the effort since “Boy Erased” was released on Nov. 2.

“They’re recognizing this is still a problem and joining our campaigns in droves,” said Brinton, a child of Baptist missionary parents who has written about agonizing conversion therapy sessions experienced as an adolescent in Florida.

Brinton recalls being bound to a table by the therapist for applications of ice, heat and electricity.

Just four days after the “Boy Erased” release came the midterm elections, which altered the partisan political dynamic at several statehouses and boosted prospects for conversion therapy bans.

In three of the states now being targeted, previous efforts to enact a ban gained some bipartisan support but were thwarted by powerful Republicans. In Maine, a bill was vetoed last year by GOP Gov. Paul LePage. In New York and Colorado, bills approved in the Democratic-led lower chambers of the legislature died in the Republican-controlled state senates.

In January, however, a Democrat will succeed LePage as Maine’s governor, and Democrats will have control of both legislative chambers in New York and in Colorado, where gay Gov.-elect Jared Polis is believed eager to sign a ban.

A lead sponsor of the New York ban bill, Democratic Sen. Brad Hoylman, predicted passage would be “straightforward” now that his party controls the Senate.

“For a lot of my colleagues, they consider conversion therapy to be child abuse,” he said.

In Massachusetts, both legislative chambers voted last year in support of a ban but were unable to reconcile different versions of the measure before adjournment. Chances of passage in 2019 are considered strong, and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — who was re-elected — is viewed as likely to sign such a measure given his strong support for LGBT rights.

More Republican governors like Baker are getting behind the bans, reflecting activists’ belief that opposition to conversion therapy is increasingly bipartisan.

Bills proposing bans are pending or anticipated in several GOP-controlled legislatures, including Florida, Ohio and Utah. LGBT activists are particularly intrigued by Utah because of the possibility that the powerful Mormon church, which in the past supported conversion therapy, might endorse a bill to ban the practice for minors.

In Florida, the proposed ban faces long odds in the legislature in 2019, but activists note that about 20 Florida cities and counties have passed local bans — more than any other state.

In Ohio, supporters of a bill that would ban conversion therapy for minors realize they have an uphill fight in a legislature with GOP supermajorities.

Still, Sen. Charleta Tavares, a Columbus Democrat, believes her proposal got “new legs” in November. That’s when the state board overseeing counsellors, social workers and marriage and family therapists warned the 40,000 professionals it regulates that anyone found practicing conversion therapy on LGBT patients could lose their license.

“I am glad to see that our state boards are carrying this movement, regardless of the inaction by our General Assembly,” Tavares said.

For now, LGBT activists are not seeking to ban conversion therapy for adults. A gay California legislator, Evan Low, withdrew a bill he introduced earlier this year that would have declared conversion therapy a fraudulent practice and banned commercial use of it for adults and minors. Some opponents had threatened to sue to block the bill, saying it would jeopardize free speech and free exercise of religion.

Low says he may try again after revising his bill. If so, his arguments could be bolstered by input from John Smid, the real-life model for the “Boy Erased” character who ran a coercive conversion therapy program.

For years, Smid was director of Tennessee-based Love in Action, a ministry which operated such a program. Smid left the organization in 2008. He subsequently renounced the concept that sexual orientation could be changed and apologized for any harm he had caused. In 2014, he married his same-sex partner, with whom he lives in Texas.

Smid recently co-operated with a law firm as it compiled a report about Love in Action for the Washington-based Mattachine Society, which studies past instances of anti-LGBT persecution.

One of the report’s co-authors, Lisa Linsky, said Smid depicted Love in Action as “a complete and utter failure,” with none of its participants actually changing their sexual orientation.

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