By Matt Murphy | State House News Service | March 7, 2019
BOSTON — Longtime supporters of legislation that would make Massachusetts the sixteenth state to ban sexual orientation conversion therapy for minors are hoping this year is finally the year it becomes law.
The proposed ban on state-licensed health care providers offering conversion therapy for minors nearly became law last summer, clearing both the House and Senate on the final day of formal sessions in July.
Democratic legislative leaders failed, however, to deliver the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker, and are now restarting their effort to advance the controversial measure. It began Tuesday with a near unanimous vote by the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities to recommend two bills.
Rep. Kay Khan, who has refiled the legislation for the fourth time, said she’s optimistic that her bill, which enjoys bipartisan support from a majority of the Legislature, could be on the fast track.
“That’s my hope. Better to get it over sooner rather than later, in my opinion, because just having it out there for a long period of time, there are a lot of naysayers out there,” Khan said after chairing the hearing on her own bill.
Khan’s bill was the subject of a crowded, emotional hearing in front the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities where parents, pastors, lawmakers and members of the LGBTQ community spent hours making their case for and against the bills.
The hearing, which started a half-hour late and required staff to open an overflow room, was followed by an executive session where Khan’s bill and a separate measure offered by Sen. Mark Montigny was quickly reported out favorably. Only Republican Rep. Michael Soter reserved his rights.
The committee action this early in the session signals that Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate could be hoping to capitalize quickly on broad support for the bill. Khan’s bill has 116 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, representing more than half of all elected lawmakers.
“Conversion therapy is based on the concept that people’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be fixed. Well, I say there’s nothing to fix,” said Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler.
Fifteen states have already banned licensed conversation therapy, and the bill would only apply to therapy for minors under the age of 18. It has an exemption for religious institutions.
“As an out man I’m embarrassed that over a dozen states have banned conversation therapy and we haven’t done so in Massachusetts,” said Sen. Julian Cyr, a Cape Cod Democrat and one of several openly gay members of the Legislature.
Supporters greatly outnumbered opponents in the hearing room, with one person holding a sign that said, “Conversion Therapy = Child Abuse.” But the bill was not without its detractors, including a small group of people sitting in the front row opposed to the bill who wore black T-shirts that read, “Changed.”
Ken Williams, a California man wearing one of those T-shirts, said he was a confused about his sexual identity and became suicidal in his late teens after being exposed to gay pornography and touched inappropriately by other boys at a young age.
Therapy, Williams said, helped him talk through his “emotional pain” and overcome his insecurities and self-hatred. It also helped change his sexual attraction and fulfill his desire to marry a woman, he said. “Some people want to be gay and that’s their right in America, but not everybody is at peace with that being the direction of their lives,” Williams said.
Williams was one of several people organized to testify against the bill by the Massachusetts Family Institute. At one point, Rep. David LeBoeuf asked a panel that included Williams if they were residents of Massachusetts, which they weren’t. Williams’ co-panelists were from Tennessee and Oregon, and the Family Institute also flew in two survivors from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida to testify.
The hearing, at times, grew testy as Rep. Jack Lewis, an openly gay legislator, challenged opponents who said they had been able to leave their gay lifestyles behind thanks to the therapy they received at different points in their lives.
Lewis said he was offended by some of the testimony that seems to suggest being gay was a result of childhood sexual abuse, and said that was not a subject “to be talked about so flippantly.”
“Nothing in this bill would prevent therapists from exploring true trauma,” Lewis said.
The committee heard from many members of the LGBTQ community, including teens, who described the idea of conversion therapy as offensive and potentially dangerous, leading to depression, anxiety and even substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.
Other medical professionals testified that conversion therapy is not rooted in accepted medical science and can cause psychological harm. The Massachusetts Medical Society, among other medical groups, opposes conversion therapy.
Arline Isaacson, the co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said people in the LGBT community joke about the idea of conversion therapy as “praying away the gay.”
“These so-called treatments are bogus. We laugh about them. We joke about them,” Isaacson said, describing the practice as “not medically valid” and something that can cause harm.
Still, some people urged lawmakers not to take away the option from people who find different types of therapy helpful.
Neil Hubacker, a pastor from Beverly, said young people in his congregation often seek help with finding ways to align their faith with their same-sex attraction. “I’m glad I had several counselors on hand that I could send them to,” Hubacker said.
Another mother testified about the pain she experienced watching her transgender daughter take hormones and go through surgeries to transition to life as a man, and asked that the government not get involved in family decisions about health care.
Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who led a group of lawmakers in testifying in support of the ban, stressed that the bill does not apply to adults, or to religious institutions.
“This idea that the state is trying to tell people what they can do and what they can be is a false narrative,” said the Democrat from Pittsfield.
Among those who testified with Farley-Bouvier was Rep. Tami Gouveia, a freshman lawmaker from Acton who also has a 17-year-old transgender son, Cam.
“Conversion therapy is based on lies that damage individuals and their relationship with themselves and others,” Gouveia said.
Asked about conversion therapy, Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said, “The administration is proud of the Commonwealth’s history of support for equal rights and protecting all citizens against discrimination, and will carefully review any legislation that reaches the Governor’s desk.”