On Wednesday, March 13, the Massachusetts Senate voted to ban conversion therapy for minors. The bill bans any licensed health care provider from advertising or attempting therapies which seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It still needs to be signed by Governor Charlie Baker before it becomes law, but the governor is expected to sign it, as he has expressed in the past that he is “inclined to support” such legislation.
If and when it is signed into state law, this bill would make Massachusetts the 16th state in the United States (and the fifth in New England) to ban conversion therapy for minors. Since 1998, the American Psychiatric Association has held that beyond being unethical, considering a non-heterosexual sexual orientation or non-binary gender identity as a mental disorder and attempting to treat it does not work to change that identity. It may actually cause a lot of harm, especially for minors. Pseudoscientific conversion therapies include aversion therapy (think electroshock), emotional and physical abuse, hazing, and spiritual manipulation. These tactics often lead to trauma and long-lasting mental and emotional issues, as well as complications from self-repression.
It may seem surprising (and certainly upsetting) that this practice, which has no research supporting its effectiveness or ethicality, still exists in the United States. The reason many states and the federal government have not banned the practice is that many groups that support this therapy consider it protected by the First Amendment. That is, such groups consider any attempt to ban conversion therapy an infringement on the religious liberties and freedom of speech of health care providers.
This issue arose in MA as well. The Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative religious group that supports “healthy families” in MA (i.e. does not support same-sex marriage, abortion, or premarital sex), said that it would sue the state for infringement of First Amendment rights. However, such legal challenges are unlikely to amount to much. This bill is similar to any other bill that regulates what licensed health professionals are able to do, and in the medical field, scientific research generally wins at the end of the day.
This legislation only bars conversion therapy performed by health care providers, not religious groups or leaders, which means that this harmful practice will continue in other contexts. While this ban is a great step forward, it must be noted that the practice is perfectly legal in the majority of the United States. A 2018 study from UCLA found that about 700,000 adults in the United States have undergone or are currently experiencing conversion therapy and that in the next year, 20,000 LGBTQ+ youth will receive conversion therapy from health care providers and 57,000 LGBTQ+ youth from religious or spiritual advisors. These numbers are terrifying; the amount of compounded trauma being inflicted on queer youth is untenable.
If you’d like to know more about the history of conversion therapy in the United States, there is a short podcast series called UnErased. It includes an investigation into its origins and the stories of real individuals involved, both therapists and patients—both abusers and victims.
A startling backdrop to this already grim situation is a new policy in Brunei, a small Southeast Asian country, that will punish homosexual behavior with stoning. Celebrities including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres, and Elton John are calling for a boycott of major hotels affiliated with Brunei to protest this policy and put financial and geopolitical pressure on Brunei to change it. This is a sharp reminder that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States pales in comparison to the state of LGBTQ+ rights worldwide, and that there is much work left to be done.
While we should celebrate advances in MA, we must not forget that queer youth across the country are still being subjected to what is tantamount to child abuse. In parallel, while we should celebrate advances in the United States, we cannot forget that LGBTQ+ individuals across the globe face even graver circumstances than any we can imagine here.
Despite domestic victories such as legalized same-sex marriage and conversion therapy bans, we must not think that the war is won. The health of tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ youth is at stake, as are the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people worldwide.