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KY lawmakers seek to ban 'conversion therapy' for gay youths, citing health risks

Lexington Herald-Leader - 1/14/2020

Jan. 14--FRANKFORT -- "Conversion therapy," a discredited practice by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals are counseled in order to change their sexual orientation, would be banned for state-licensed mental health professionals treating Kentucky children under bills sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Critics of the practice say it can lead to withdrawal, anxiety, depression and suicide among youths. It is uniformly opposed by the nation's leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Zack Meiners, a Louisville filmmaker, said he spent four years attending twice-weekly conversion sessions after he was outed as gay to his family at the age of 14. His parents arranged for him to meet with a church pastor and a professional therapist, who used fear, shame and self-inflicted pain to attempt a forced change in his sexuality.

"I was taught to hate who I was," said Meiners, 30, after a state Capitol news conference on Tuesday to promote House Bill 199 and Senate Bill 85.

"Luckily, I was never sent into an in-patient situation or to one of the camps, as some kids are. I was able to coax my parents into not going down that road," Meiners said. "There are people who go through exorcisms. There are people who suffer where pain is inflicted on them by others. There are lots of different methods."

Similar versions of the bills died in the 2019 legislative session for lack of action in their assigned committees.

House Health and Family Services Committee Chairwoman Kimberly Poore Moser, R-Taylor Mill, did not return repeated calls Tuesday asking whether she would allow a hearing on the House bill this year. Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee Chairman John Schickel, R-Union, said he was familiar with conversion therapy but did not have a position on this year's Senate bill.

"I'll have to take a look at it," Schickel said.

The sponsors say they're optimistic because 19 other states have banned conversion therapy. And in the GOP-controlled Kentucky legislature, they have lined up Senate Republican sponsors as well as House Democratic sponsors.

"Conversion so-called therapy ... threatens the health, well-being and safety of many of our young people," said state Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, a psychologist who is the lead sponsor of HB 199.

"We must expose the fact that this practice is not a therapy at all," Willner said. "This is a practice that attempts to fix something that was never broken. It is a practice that targets some of our most vulnerable and disenfranchised youth."

The bills would prohibit state-licensed medical and mental health professionals -- including doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, clinical therapists and counselors -- from engaging in conversion therapy with minors or adults who are wards of the state or in protective custody. Violations could lead to sanctions for professional misconduct from the offenders' licensing boards.

The bills also would block public funds from going to any organization involved with conversion therapy.

Another sponsor, state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, said she is urging her colleagues this week to watch "Boy Erased," a 2018 movie about a gay teenager ordered by his parents to enter a church-run conversion program. Kerr said the movie horrified her and opened her eyes about the practice.

"We all are evolving in our thoughts and our actions and in what we know to be human dignity," Kerr said.

Martin Cochran, spokesman for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, said his group will lobby lawmakers against the bills. The state government should not get involved in what appears to be a political and ideological disagreement within the mental health community over the viability of conversion therapy, Cochran said.

"You can find bad examples of any kind of treatment, but that does not necessarily invalidate the treatment method," Cochran said. "I know people who have undergone that treatment who have changed as a result of it and who are now happy."

A study published in 2018 by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 698,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults in the United States between the ages of 18 and 59 received conversion therapy, about half of them while they were adolescents. Nearly 60,000 more youths then under the age of 18 could be expected to undergo the practice in the next few years, the study's authors said.


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