On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate passed legislation that bans conversion therapy for minors — putting it just one step away from joining a number of other states that have passed similar bans in recent years.
Conversion therapy, a harmful practice that aims to change a person’s sexuality or gender, has been widely discredited by medical groups.
The bill received widespread support in both the House and Senate. There were zero “no” votes in the Senate, and only five abstentions. In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 147-8.
Although Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has not definitively said he would sign the legislation, he said he would be “inclined to support” it a few weeks ago. A local LGBTQ activism group, MassEquality, is also optimistic it will become law.
In 2016, Baker signed a bill into law that addresses access to public accommodations. It allows people to use bathrooms, changing rooms, and locker rooms that match their gender identity and protects trans people from discrimination in public spaces. Last year, he endorsed a ballot question, Question 3, that upheld the state’s anti-discrimination law for trans people. The governor has also expressed disappointment with the Trump administration for rolling back protections for transgender people in 2017.
Some Senate Republicans who opposed the legislation said that they do not support conversion therapy, sometimes known as “reparative therapy,” but they do not believe it is being done in Massachusetts and think the bill’s language is too broad.
“The vague wording leaves too much room for interpretation in an area that requires caution and precision from government,” Sen. Vinny deMacedo (R) told the Springfield Republican.
Deborah Shields, executive director of MassEquality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, told ThinkProgress that although the practice is “pretty underground” and there is no reporting body to collect data on these practices, LGBTQ youth organizations in the state are aware of young people who had been victimized by them. Shields added her organization worked with the Massachusetts Psychological Association and other groups throughout the process “to ensure there’s plenty of room for people to explore their sexuality and gender identity without having a therapist dictate the outcome.”
The American Psychiatric Association reiterated its opposition to conversion therapy last year. The group originally came out against it in 1998 and expanded on that statement in 2013. The APA said, “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.”
Conversion therapy during adolescence is associated with poor mental health outcomes, including a higher likelihood of attempting suicide, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Homosexuality.
“No therapist should dictate the outcome for any client on any issue but especially not on young people for gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s unethical,” Shield said. “I think it’s very likely to succeed this time. It’s amazing that it’s been brought up so early in the session … We’re very hopeful Gov. Baker will sign it.”
Massachusetts lawmakers and advocacy groups have been trying to pass such a law for nearly a decade now, but there has been a resurgence in interest paid to the issue of conversion therapy over the past couple of years, LGBTQ advocacy groups say. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have passed these laws, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that provides research on nondiscrimination laws. In 2018 alone, five states (Washington, Hawaii, Delaware, Maryland, and New Hampshire) passed anti-conversion therapy legislation.
This month, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló issued an executive order that banned conversion therapy on minors.
Rosselló said in a statement to the media, “As a father, as a scientist and as the governor for everyone in Puerto Rico, I firmly believe that the idea that there are people in our society who need treatment because of their gender identity or whom they love is not only absurd, it is harmful to so many children and young adults who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
On Monday, the Colorado Senate passed a bill banning conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth, also sending it to the governor’s desk. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), who became the first country’s openly gay male governor this year, is on the record saying he wants to end the practice in the state. The Minnesota House is currently considering a bill prohibiting conversion therapy on children and vulnerable adults, medical assistance for conversion therapy, and misrepresentation of conversion therapy services. Not all bills on the issue have moved in their legislatures, however. A Missouri bill banning conversion therapy that was introduced in January hasn’t moved forward in months.
LGBTQ organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign and The Trevor Project, have been in discussions with lawmakers across the country to try to pass bills that protect LGBTQ youth, including conversion therapy bans.
Nick Morrow, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, said as more states pass these bills, legislation in other states gains momentum. Morrow and Shields said they believe recent cultural focus on conversion therapy may play a role. The movies Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post depicted conversion therapy and were both released in 2018.
“This is something that has reached a legislative tipping point now where states around the country are seeing how other states are pushing these types of bills,” Morrow said. “The common sense nature of these bills just makes sense to a lot of legislators around the country. People are like, why are we continuing to allow this debunked, de-credited practice to occur when it’s hurting the youth in our state? Within just the past three years, these bills have been passing in exponentially more states.”
Shields said of cultural discussions of conversion therapy, “It’s kind of shocking that this still goes on but clearly it has percolated to popular culture … That these [movies] were being shown in mainstream theaters certainly shows that the time has come.”