Could Massachusetts Be the Next State to Outlaw Conversion Therapy for LGBTQ Youth?

"These parents [of queer kids] are searching for answers, and they’re very vulnerable."

More than 100 Massachusetts lawmakers have signed onto a bill banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth at the state level.

Authored by Massachusetts House Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), House Bill 140 seeks to outlaw “any practice by a health care provider that attempts or purports to impose change of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” Psychologists or mental health providers found offering “gay cure” treatments could have their licenses revoked.

Khan claims the legislation, which was accompanied by a companion bill in the Senate, is her “top priority” this session.

“Professionals have a medical and ethical responsibility to their patients not to engage in these harmful, discredited practices, which can lead to depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, and thoughts of suicide,” she tells NewNowNext. “Massachusetts has always been a trailblazer in advancing civil rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, and this bill is a necessary extension of those historic commitments.”

Like many states, HB 140 does not ban conversion therapy on LGBTQ adults. It also features some exemptions for religious institutions.

HB 140 is well on its way to passage this year. After it was introduced in late January, the legislation has received a historic 116 cosponsors in the Massachusetts House and Senate, both of which are controlled by Democrats.

The Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities advanced HB 140 last week following a favorable hearing.

Mimi Lemay, the mother of a transgender child in Massachusetts, was one of the approximately 45 people who spoke at that hearing. She told the committee that conversion therapy harms not only LGBTQ youth but also their parents.

“When you’re embarking on this journey when your child is beginning to discover their gender identity, it’s always wrought with some sense of fear and confusion,” she tells NewNowNext. “I advised that this ban needs to go into effect to protect parents from false therapies that are out there. These parents are searching for answers, and they’re very vulnerable.”

However, Lemay also testified at the Massachusetts Legislature last year, when a similar bill failed to get a hearing on the Senate floor even after it was approved in the House by an overwhelming 137-to-14 vote.

At the time, the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute took credit for the bill’s undoing. In a statement, its president, Andrew Beckwith, claimed the conversion therapy ban “was defeated by all the hard work of our allies in the House and Senate, backed up by the phone calls and emails from MFI’s thousands of Bay State supporters.”

This year, the right-wing lobby group has already begun broadcasting radio spots opposing HB 14o. It claims the legislation would force parents of transgender children to allow their children to transition against their will.

“Parents would be branded as ‘child abusers’ if they do not allow their children to change their children,” the 55-second clip warns.

But Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, says supporters of a conversion therapy ban just want to protect LGBTQ youth and their families from a “dangerous and discredited practice that harms LGBTQ adults and young people.”

Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Above: A Pride flag flies at Boston City Hall during a Pride Month celebration.

“On the heels of an election in which Massachusetts voters sent an unambiguous message that they care about and will insist on respect and dignity for the Commonwealth’s LGBTQ community, this should be the year that this practice is finally banned,” he tells NewNowNext. “We urge lawmakers to pass this bill and Gov. Baker to sign it with all due haste.”

Last year, Massachusetts upheld statewide nondiscrimination protections for trans people by a 67-to-32 margin in a closely watched referendum.

It was just the second time voters upheld trans rights at the ballot box following a similar vote in Anchorage, Alaska, months earlier.

Despite the setbacks of previous legislative sessions, LGBTQ advocates believe 2019 could be the year Massachusetts joins the 15 other states that have banned conversion therapy statewide.

“As a survivor who was in the room five years ago when this critical legislation was first being drafted, I could never have imagined such a wave of support from the now more than 116 cosponsors of this legislation,” said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, tells NewNowNext. “This bill will undoubtedly save young LGBTQ lives.”

Should HB 140 become law, Maine would be the only state in New England without a conversion therapy law on the books. Outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage became the first governor to veto a bill banning orientation change efforts on LGBTQ youth in July 2018.

His replacement, Democrat Janet Mills, has confirmed she will sign a conversion therapy bill if one reaches her desk.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
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