Virginia Beach will ask the General Assembly to ban conversion therapy

A state prison inmate mows grass on Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The state’s largest city unanimously added a request to its legislative agenda Tuesday night to ban conversion therapy in the state.

Virginia Beach’s only gay councilmember, Michael Berlucchi, and the city’s Human Rights Commission added the issue to the city’s package of statewide priorities. 

Being the state’s largest city puts weight behind the effort, Berlucchi said, and it means the city council should set the tone for other localities.

“It’s always important to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s important to raise awareness of the fact that our neighbors and our friends are being subjected to this treatment. It’s almost 2020, we’re evolving as a community and we’re becoming a more inclusive community that warmly embraces everyone.”

In September, Richmond City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution banning the practice in the city. The city is still working on its legislative agenda. 

Conversion therapy’s aim is to change a person’s sexual orientation. Several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, oppose and dismiss it as a legitimate therapy.

It can lead to higher suicide attempt rates among LGBTQ youth who undergo the therapy, according to a study by the Family Acceptance Project.

“I refuse to call it a therapy,” Berlucchi said. “The practitioners aren’t basing their practice in science or medicine.” 

People who oppose a ban say it infringes on First Amendment rights, religious beliefs and freedom to seek counseling.

“The entire move is an attempt to limit people’s freedom in a way that these people are seeking this counselor,” Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb told the Richmond City Council last month. “You don’t need Christian values to think freedom for counselors and their clients – is absolutely what this country is all about. We don’t limit people’s ability to get a service that they’re looking for.”

Berlucchi rejected that argument.

“This is not an infringement on religious liberty,” he said. “What we’re simply asking is that psychological care be done in concert with the professional standards of the field and there are no professional standards for conversion therapy. The practice has been discredited.”

Cole Werkheiser, president of Hampton Roads Pride, said he doesn’t know of any place in the region practicing conversion therapy. Some licensed professionals may have offered the service, but recent state regulatory decisions will make that difficult.

The state Board of Psychology adopted a guidance document earlier this year that stated conversion therapy practice “could result in a finding of misconduct and disciplinary action” against people licensed by the Board. The Board of Counseling followed.

It’s the first step in tamping down conversion therapy practitioners, but it doesn’t make it illegal. Statewide legislation to do that has consistently failed to get out of committees on party lines.