Politics & Government

Washington Legislature bans conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors

Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 5.
Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 5. AP

Efforts to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors in Washington came to fruition Saturday when the state Senate voted to ban practices geared toward altering the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor.

The 33-16 vote for Senate bill 5722, which would bar licensed healthcare providers from offering conversion therapy to minors, marked the culmination of five years of failed efforts in the Legislature to clamp down on a practice some Democrat and Republican lawmakers equate with torture.

The measure had already passed the Senate but needed another vote for an amendment the House added when it approved the bill with a 66-32 vote last month. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, who said he believes there is no medical evidence to support conversion therapy. Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law.

Should the bill become law, therapists, psychiatrists or other healthcare providers could lose their license if they try to influence a minor’s sexuality or gender identity.

The measure comes as many former recipients and psychologists suggest conversion therapies can physically or mentally scar a child, leading to depression or suicide.

Some forms of the therapy involve putting rocks in a patient’s shoes, plunging them in an ice bath or regularly telling them their life is meaningless and they will contract sexually-transmitted diseases, according to state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who sponsored the bill.

Psychologists familiar with conversion therapy said the treatments can be much worse. In the past — and possibly still — people were forced to watch pornographic material while being shocked with electricity or while under the effects of nausea-inducing drugs.

Several major medical associations, including the American Psychological Association, report there is insufficient evidence to support the efficacy of conversion therapy.

“I’m just so relieved and also excited that we have taken this step,” said Liias, who is gay. “It’s been five years in the making, and this clearly sends a loud an unequivocal message that [LGBTQ children] are welcome, that we don’t want them to change and that they have a place in our society.”

Liias credited the bill’s success this year to Democrats’ newfound majority in the Senate due to a special election leading into the 2018 legislative session. Last year a bill to abolish conversion therapy for minors passed the House but failed to make it to a vote in the Senate.

Some Republicans opposed this year’s measure because they felt restricting a patient’s access to conversion therapy ran afoul of religious freedoms and other rights granted under the state constitution.

“For this body to say that someone else’s rights excludes my own and my family’s rights is simply not true according to state constitution,” state Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said in a House debate last month.

Other Republican lawmakers raised concerns that talk therapies meant to help suss out questions of sexuality among minors, but not influence them one way or another, would be barred under the bill.

House Democrats sought to ease those concerns with an amendment clarifying health care providers still could talk about sexuality with a minor as long as the intent is not to change the minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

In their support of the bill, Democrats also highlighted the negative impact conversion therapies have for LGBTQ youth struggling to make sense of their sexuality.

State Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, alluded to reports that LGBTQ youth suffer from depression and attempt suicide at a higher rate than heterosexual children. One report from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention found LGBTQ students were almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual students.

“This legislation will literally save lives,” Macri, who is gay, said during the House debate.

An estimated 700,000 LGBTQ people in the United States have at one point in their life received conversion therapy, according to one UCLA study published in January.

One of those people is Manny Santiago, the executive director of Rainbow Center, a Tacoma-based LGBTQ community center.

Santiago grew up in rural Puerto Rico and was 13 when he said his parents first sent him to a local pastor for conversion therapy. The pastor tried shaming Santiago, now 39, for his sexuality, saying he would never be whole in God’s eyes if he continued to feel attracted to other men.

Santiago said a feeling of unworthiness — of being afraid other men finding out he was gay — lingered for years after the experience.

“It takes years to overcome the shame, to overcome that feeling of unworthiness,” Santiago said. “Conversion therapy, whether it’s physical or mental or spiritual or psychological, is damaging to a kid.”