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Ban on conversion therapy clears House division

Rep. Athena Hollins presents her bill, HF2156, that would bar providing conversion therapy to vulnerable adults or people under the age of 18, during the March 2 meeting of the House Preventive Health Policy Division. (Screenshot)
Rep. Athena Hollins presents her bill, HF2156, that would bar providing conversion therapy to vulnerable adults or people under the age of 18, during the March 2 meeting of the House Preventive Health Policy Division. (Screenshot)

In 2009, Aubrey Dobson was forcibly removed from home by two off-duty police officers at the direction of her parents and taken to “a wilderness program” she describes as 10 months of physical and psychological terror.

But as she told the House Preventive Health Policy Division Wednesday, Dobson’s so-called “conversion therapy” didn’t work as she is now happily married to another woman. The experience did, however, “result in 13 years of actual talk therapy to recover from the torture that I received as a child.”

Dobson was among a number of people who testified both for and against HF2156, which was approved by the division on a 7-4 party-line vote and referred to the House Health Finance and Policy Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul), the bill would prohibit mental health practitioners and professionals from providing conversion therapy to vulnerable adults or people under the age of 18. It would also ban fraudulent or deceptive advertising about conversion therapy and specify the practice is not covered by Medical Assistance.

Hollins said her bill is long overdue.

“Conversion therapy includes a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or efforts to change a person’s gender identity or expression,” she said. “It preys on the fears of parents and does irreparable harm to children and young adults. Let me be very clear, conversion therapy is not a therapy at all.”

Mathew Shurka, who underwent five years of conversion therapy and is co-founder of Born Perfect, a national organization that aims to end the practice, said children and young adults who have had conversion therapy are at a much greater risk of suicide than their peers.

He said there are currently 28 organizations in Minnesota that support or conduct conversion therapy and 86 therapists who use it, 34 of whom are licensed mental health professionals.

“I want you to know that in the state of Minnesota conversion therapy is prevalent,” Shurka said. “We hear from survivors every day.”

Children’s Minnesota, the state’s largest pediatric health care provider, was one of several organizations that submitted testimony in support of the bill, writing that it serves LGBTQ kids on a daily basis and those children are at higher risk of low self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, bullying, substance abuse and suicidality.

“The practice of conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth is not effective, evidence-based, or even ethical according to both the American Psychiatric Association and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,” per the letter. “In fact, research shows that these types of interventions result in poorer mental health outcomes and increases in suicide attempts. That is why twenty other states and more than 75 municipalities have banned the dangerous and harmful practice.”

But there were also a number people and organizations who voiced opposition to the bill, including Dale Witherington, leader of a ministry to House and Senate members called Restore Minnesota, who said the bill is based on the premise that gay people cannot change. “This is a flat-out lie,” he said.

He cited a 2019 genetics study done on the link between genetics and same-sex attraction that Witherington said had concluded “there is no such thing as a gay gene … people are not born gay.”

Luca Groppoli of Agape First Ministries said she had been a transgendered male for 34 years and that “to tell a group of people that they don’t have the right to seek help is audacious and the most unloving thing that I think I’ve ever heard of.”

Dan Munson, a licensed therapist and co-owner of a mental health clinic that serves 2,000 people per week, is also very concerned about the bill.

“Politicians shouldn't be telling people that their counseling goals are illegal,” Munson wrote. “I am concerned that this bill is extremely broad and could prevent a counselor from helping a client explore all options to address questions with regard to their lifestyle.”

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, which describes itself as the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, also wrote in opposition to the bill, saying it would deny “young people who struggle with gender discordance and same-sex attraction access to the psychological sciences that help them live in harmony with their bodies and with a healthy, rightly ordered sexuality that promotes human flourishing.”

Rep. Susan Akland (R-St. Peter), who voted against the bill, said there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue but the proposal could have unintended consequences.

“I don’t think we know the true answer here, and so while trying to protect one group of individuals I’m afraid we would be doing harm to another group of individuals,” Akland said.

But Hunter Cantrell, who served one term in the House (2019-2020) is openly gay and carried similar legislation himself, implored division members to reject conversion therapy as a “heinous, harmful and fraudulent pseudoscience” and vote for the bill.

“LGBTQ+ people are perfect just the way they are and it is not their fault that they were born into a world full of animosity and hate towards them; that does not understand them,” Cantrell said. “This is a great bill, members, and one simple action that this committee can take to stand up for the most vulnerable among us.”

The companion, SF1871, is sponsored by Sen. D. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls) and awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

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