Years in the making, law to ban conversion therapy passes General Assembly

By: - February 18, 2020 12:02 am

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After years of efforts, a bill to ban conversion therapy on minors has cleared both chambers of the General Assembly. The legislation, backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, will make Virginia the 20th state in the nation to outlaw the practice.

The passage marks a dramatic reversal from previous years, when different versions of the bill repeatedly failed to make it onto the House or Senate floor. It’s one of the latest progressive policies to gain new momentum with the General Assembly’s Democratic majority, which advanced a series of LGBTQ-friendly bills in the first few weeks of the session.

“I do think on both sides of the aisle, elected officials understand this is a harmful practice,” said Side by Side director Ted Lewis, whose nonprofit provides safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. “We saw that in both the House and Senate, the legislation passed with bipartisan support.”

Del. Patrick Hope’s version of the bill — identical to a similar piece of legislation filed in the Senate — passed the House in early February on a 66-27 vote. Eleven Republicans voted in favor. It passed the Senate 22-18 on Monday, with Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, breaking ranks to approve the legislation.

Conversion therapy, aimed at changing a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity, has long been disavowed by LGBTQ advocates and most members of the scientific community. More than a dozen national medical organizations have issued statements opposing the treatment, and it’s been condemned by social justice groups such as the ACLU of Virginia.

Historically, the treatment occasionally involved electro-shock therapy or even lobotomies. Today, it takes the form of counseling and psychotherapy, often referred to as “sexual-orientation change efforts.”

Several state regulatory boards have also taken their own steps to ban the therapy after years of inaction by legislators. The boards of Psychology, Counseling, and Social Work implemented prohibitions last year, and the director of the Department of Health Professions spoke in favor of a statewide ban in 2018.

“I think Republican leadership wanted to approach it on a micro-level and make it go to different boards for a decision,” Lewis said. “But that doesn’t extend the same protections to everyone.”

Hope’s bill bans conversion therapy by licensed health professionals such as counselors, social workers and psychologists. Under the legislation, offering the treatment is grounds for disciplinary action by state regulatory boards. The final version of the bill also prevents the state from spending money on conversion therapy or extending coverage on health benefits plans.

The law only applies to patients under the age of 18, and doesn’t extend to non-health professionals such as religious leaders.

While Lewis disagreed with the exception, opponents have argued that the legislation goes too far in limiting religious freedom. In a Senate committee hearing, Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said he opposed “barbaric” treatments like shock therapy but still believed licensed professionals should retain their ability to offer counseling that aligned with their religious beliefs.

“When it comes to the language of the bill, there wasn’t a way to allow, for instance, a Christian or Jewish counselor to keep their civil liberties intact and remain a professional,” Newman said, explaining his opposition to the bill. “I wish we could find a way to fix that, but as of right now, the language doesn’t allow it.”

Proponents of the bill argue that even talk therapy can have a deleterious impact on LGBTQ patients. The American Psychological Association reviewed nearly 50 years of research on conversion therapy and found side effects that ranged from depression to increased risk of suicide. Lewis said the bill’s passage sends a strong message that sexual orientation isn’t a condition that requires treatment.

“Not only is it pragmatic, it’s a symbol to our LGBTQ youth that there is nothing wrong with them,” Lewis said. “And it’s aligned with best practices that reflect how harmful conversion therapy can be.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.