Conversion therapy bill picking up steam

Execution of legislation is questionable

MASSACHUSETTS LAWMAKERS ARE on the verge of passing a conversion therapy bill that attempts to shield youths from therapists trying to tamper with their sexual or gender orientation, but it’s unclear how the legislation would be implemented. 

The bill would prohibit licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone under the age of 18 during treatment.Supporters say the bill is needed to protect minors who may be struggling with their sexual identity. Any provider that violates the law could lose their license and face prosecution for consumer fraud. 

Opponents say the bill is potentially intrusive in the therapist-client relationship and in many ways is trying to solve a problem that no longer exists. They note mental health professional groups, including the American Psychiatric Association, already condemn conversion therapy. The legislation would not apply to religious groups, which seem to be the most active players in conversion therapy. 

It’s also unclear how violators would be discovered. A previous version of the bill, which failed to pass last year, required mandatory reporting of violations by teachers, priests, and others, but the current bill has no similar reporting mechanism. It appears to put the onus on the patient to file a complaint against the therapist with the state licensing board online, according to one legislator’s office. Unlike with other states that have previously considered or passed a ban, specific implementation measures and standards that accused therapists will be held to are not explicit. 

Fifteen other states have passed laws banning conversion therapy, but a survey of several of those states found no disciplinary actions have occurredand that some states are not tracking disciplinary actions at all.  

Rep. Kay Khan of Newton, the bill’s chief sponsor, said the legislation is needed. “The bill is a commonsense measure to ensure medically sound, professional conduct by state-licensed health providers and to protect LGBTQ youth from being exposed to fraudulent, ineffective, and very harmful practices,” she said when the measure passed the House on March 13.   

Map showing statewide legal bans against conversion therapy for minors. (Courtesy of Movement Advancement Project)

The bill is slated to be taken up on Thursday in the Senate, where it is expected to pass. Gov. Charlie Baker has said the ban is “something we’d be inclined to support.”  

Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said the bill violates the free speech of therapists and patients and theoretically could ban talk therapy to address a person’s sexual behavior. 

“If you have a 16-year-old who feels she’s a boy inside, a counselor talks to her and finds past trauma and helps her feel comfortable in her own body instead of hormone treatment. But that would be child abuse,” Beckwith said.  

The bill would not cover groups like the Christian-affiliated Recreation Ministries, which regards “homosexual behavior as a sin” and offers to help people impacted by “sexual brokenness.” The organization’s website, which offers meeting times in Massachusetts, does say it will make referrals to licensed mental health professionals for teenagers. 

Officials at Recreation Ministries could not be reached for comment. 

Dr. Michael Ferguson has been pushing for the legislation, drawing on his experiences as an emerging gay student at Brigham Young University and later in Boston. Ferguson said a Mormon bishop referred him to a “pray the gay away” therapy and ministry group at Park Street Church and a group called Alive in Christ that used sexual orientation change efforts and referred people to licensed professionals. Officials at the organization could not be reached for comment. 

This occurred about a decade ago, but Ferguson and other advocates insist that similar situations have occurred, and that testimonies at recent legislative hearings prove that. Ferguson described conversion therapy as clinical counseling based on a model that being homosexual is a result of some kind of deficit in developmental history. “The trope still being played is that your dad was distant, your mom was overcompensating, and your peers were ostracizing,” Ferguson said.  He described ”uncomfortable” instances of group conversion therapy when younger men were physically held by older men “who acted like a surrogate father,” in order for patients to find some sort of closure over damaged parental relationships.   

It was only when he began to take part in conversion therapy groups back in Utah where sexual abuse allegedly went on that Ferguson decided to break away from all forms of therapy that would try to shift his sexuality. “In the midst of an abusive situation, I effectively came to my senses,“ he said. 

When a similar bill was debated last year, Republican Rep. Shawn Dooley said the bill meddles in the therapist-patient relationship and could make it difficult for therapists to explore other options.  

“Let’s say an 8-year-old boy comes in and says, ‘I’m an 8-year-old girl.’ Maybe that therapist — and many therapists I’ve spoken to have brought this up — wants to push back a little bit. Maybe that child isn’t transgender, maybe that child’s gay, maybe that child’s bi. Why not give every opportunity for that therapist to explore that?” he asked. 

Arline Isaacson, the chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said the legislation is intended to prevent therapists from pressuring patients into changing their sexual orientation. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“We say it doesn’t matter what form conversion therapy takes,” she said. “A normal, good qualified therapist will talk to you about what you may be experiencing and will not come into the therapy session with a predetermined outcome.”