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Conversion therapy ban advances at Minnesota State Capitol

A House panel passed legislation barring therapy aimed at changing a child's sexual orientation Wednesday.

ST PAUL, Minn. — DFL lawmakers want to make it clear to children and their parents that being gay isn't a condition that requires being cured or repaired.

The House Human Services Policy Committee passed a bill Wednesday banning the professional practice of conversion therapy in Minnesota for children and vulnerable adults who identify as LGBTQ+.

"We absolutely must move past this idea that queer people can choose their sexuality and gender identity and let them show up as their full, authentic, glorious selves," Rep. Athena Hollins, the St. Paul Democrat who is the lead author of the bill, told her colleagues.

"This bill seeks to prevent children, teens, and young adults from being coerced into treatments which are ineffective and lead to depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide."

Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order in July of 2021 barring the use of state funds to pay for conversion therapy, but the controversial practice hasn't been outlawed in the state. The DFL-controlled House passed a ban in the past, but it couldn't gain any traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.

That is expected to change in 2023 now that Democrats control both the House and the Senate. The legislature has more LGBTQ members than ever before.

Kristy Graume, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said the department condemns that form of therapy. She noted the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatry Association all oppose conversion therapy.

"Conversion therapy is not really healthcare or therapy at all. This is a practice that’s widely viewed as pseudo-scientific and sadly founded in fear and shame."

It’s an issue that got on many people’s radars with the 2018 Hollywood movie "Boy Erased," based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley.  But those who identify as LGBTQ have worked for decades to stop this form of treatment.

Mathew Shurka, the co-founder of the group Born Perfect, said by his group's latest count there are 63 active conversion therapists in Minnesota and even more organizations that make referrals to those clinicians. 

Shurka spoke of his own experience with conversion therapy.

"From the age of 16 to 20, my parents spent $30,000 on my conversion therapy. I was supported by Viagra pills during sex with women. These are stories we hear from other survivors all the time."

Opponents have asserted the coercion and mental torture depicted in that film don't happen with professional therapists in Minnesota.

"The therapy ban bill is totally unnecessary for professional mental health providers. It’s like applying suntan lotion when you’re already wearing a long sleeve shirt," Dr. David Kirby, a clinical psychologist, told the committee.

"Over the last 38 years I’ve worked with transgender children, adults as well as gay-identified men and women. I have never attempted to impose some template of conversion on them."

Supporters of the ban say it's damaging to a child's mental health and sense of being to try to bend them back to a societal norm.

"When youth are told part of their identity is not real, unacceptable, or even sinful the security of this primary attachment is broken," Ryan Fouts of the organization Reclaim testified.

"The youths' ability to find their place in this society is disrupted by the devastating impact of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide."

Some of the opponents say they worry voluntary religious counseling would be restricted by the legislation if becomes law. Nathan Oyloe, a pastor, testified that as a young person he sought help from his church to get past an attraction to men that was out of sync with the teachings of his religion.

"I was not forced. I was not coerced. I was not abused. I was honored and loved in that I have been given the power of choice and the dignity to think for myself," Oyloe remarked.

"There are many in this state who have found freedom from unwanted same-sex attractions and who are now enjoying marriage and families or celibacy."

But Angela Kade Goepferd, of the Children's Minnesota hospital system, said the bill isn't designed to address situations like the one Oyloe described.

"What we are here to talk about today is parents or legal guardians bringing children or vulnerable adults to someone for help and instead of being given scientific-based care are being given a harmful and discredited practice."

Republicans on the committee tried to add an amendment that would bar children under the age of 18 from taking medications or getting surgeries aimed at gender reassignment.

Rep. Debra Kiel, a Crookston Republican, said the children can change their minds about their gender and orientation.

"These are damaging, lifelong procedures. The intent of this amendment is to not allow those things until children are old enough to make those personal decisions, for themselves."

Leah Finke, the first transgender state legislator in Minnesota history, sits on the same committee. She urged her colleagues to reject Kiel's proposed amendment.

"Conversations like the one we are having today often paint a desperate picture of trans or queer life, but the experience of life as a trans person, non-binary, gender expansive, or any LGBTQ identity is a beautiful, unique and precious thing," Finke said.

"I am grateful to be trans and I will oppose any effort to erase my community."

Opponents assert that conversion therapy is needed to undo the effects of messaging on orientations children receive in public schools, entertainment and the news media

"The biggest losers are the young children that are being taught from age 3 and younger that they’re not who they are, that they’re not who their parents think they are," said Rae Parker, who traveled from Rochester to the capitol to speak in opposition to the bill.

Among those who testified in favor of the bill was Senate Judge-Yoakam, a University of Minnesota Medical School student. She said her best friend was forced to undergo conversion therapy between the ages of 10 and 12, as part of an attempt to remove her same-sex attractions.

"During the sessions, Abby was forced to partake in aversive chemical therapy where she consumed emetine, a drug that induces vomiting while viewing pornographic images," Judge-Yoakam said.

"She was hooked up to electrodes and shocked, which left her with lifetime PTSD."

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