- Democratic lawmakers seek to ban conversion therapy, a practice aimed at changing LGBTQ youth
- Michigan would be the 22nd state to ban the controversial practice
- Some Republicans are concerned a ban could limit counselors’ options to talk frankly about sexuality, gender
Michigan lawmakers kickstarted the process of banning conversion therapy on minors Tuesday, targeting a controversial practice many experts say causes long-term detrimental health effects for LGBTQ youth.
Conversion therapy is the intervention to change “same-sex attractions or an individual’s gender expression with the specific aim to promote heterosexuality as a preferable outcome,” according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
The nation’s top mental health and medical associations oppose the practice, saying it is associated with anxiety, depression and a host of other mental health issues and also puts youth at higher risk of suicide.
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A 2023 survey of LGBTQ youth in the United States aged 13 to 24 by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ youth, found that 15 percent of survey respondents were either subjected to conversion therapy or threatened with it.
Michigan would be the 22nd state to ban the practice if legislation sponsored by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, becomes law. During a Senate Housing and Human Services Committee hearing on Senate Bills 348 and 349, McMorrow said the “dangerous and widely discredited practice” would help ensure minors seeking therapy wouldn’t be shamed for their identity.
“Parents deserve to know that when they hire a licensed mental health professional that that professional is operating only with reputable practices and in the best interest of their child,” McMorrow said.
As written, the legislation defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment by a mental health professional that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” including efforts to change behavior or gender expression or eliminate attractions towards people of the same gender.
Some Republican lawmakers on the panel were concerned that definition went too far. Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, said he’s on board with banning specific abusive practices, but fears too broad a definition of conversion therapy could potentially limit counselors’ ability to work through tough conversations about sexuality with adolescents.
“It really takes a lot of tools out of the toolbox of a psychologist or psychiatrist, potentially,” he said, adding, “It all depends on how you define it, and what you are banning.”
Experts who testified Tuesday said there’s no scientific evidence to indicate that conversion therapy changes a person’s sexual orientation.
Instead, evidence suggests conversion therapy “inflicts significant harm” on young people that can last well into adulthood, said Joy Wolfe Ensor, past president of the Michigan Psychological Association.
“Conversion efforts rely on the assumption that there is something wrong and problematic or ill about being LGBTQ,” Wolfe Ensor told lawmakers. “Conversion efforts are not therapy at all, but rather an expression of stigma that has no place in professional mental healthcare.”
It’s the latest effort by the Democratic-majority Legislature to enshrine legal protections for LGBTQ people in state law. Recently, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation expanding the state’s civil rights act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Tuesday’s hearing was limited to testimony and questions from lawmakers on the bills. Committee chair Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he’s hoping to bring the bills up for votes next week. To become law, the bills banning conversion therapy in Michigan would have to pass both the House and Senate and be signed by the governor.
Whitmer in 2021 signed an executive order barring state and federal funding from being used to pay or reimburse therapists for the use of conversion therapy on minors. At the time, she said she supported a full ban, but did not have the support of the Republican-led Legislature.
Rep. Jason Hoskins, a Southfield Democrat who is gay, supports the legislation and told the Senate panel Tuesday that banning conversion therapy would “send a message across our state” that LGBTQ youth can be their authentic selves in Michigan.