QUEER VOICES
09/18/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Conversion Therapy Ban In Pennsylvania Gaining Support

The effort to ban a controversial therapy that purports to make gay people straight is gaining momentum in Pennsylvania, say opponents of the practice.

Last April state Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D) introduced a bill that would ban the practice, sometimes known as "conversion therapy," in the case of minors. On Tuesday, Williams was joined by state Rep. Brian Sims (D), the state's first openly gay lawmaker, to announce a plan to introduce a complementary, bipartisan bill in the state House.

"It was something that we had been talking about for quite a long time, given the lack of LGBT civil rights in Pennsylvania," Sims told The Huffington Post.

However, both men said they had thought it prudent to wait to see how the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would rule on a similar ban that had been passed in California, the first such law in the U.S.

Soon after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed that state's bill into law last year, the ban was challenged in two separate lawsuits that argued it represented an unconstitutional violation of free speech and parental rights. In August the federal appeals court upheld the ban, and the Pennsylvania lawmakers decided it was time to press their case.

"When California had its ban held up by the 9th Circuit, we stopped pursuing the legislation and began pursuing the substance behind it, talking with experts, making sure to cross the t's and dot the i's," Sims said.

The entire mainstream medical community, from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Psychiatric Association, has disavowed conversion therapy, and Sims and Williams have consulted with a variety of mental health experts in the state who support their legislation.

Monique Walker, a counseling services coordinator at the Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia, which specializes in supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, said she often encounters minors who have been traumatized by the treatment. "It comes up a lot in the clinical work I do, where they have either been sent by their parents to ex-gay camps, or parents have recommended that they go see a therapist," Walked told HuffPost. "So what I see is the destructive effects that this has on people's families and their self-esteem."

Williams said he sees the fight to ban the therapy as an extension of his work on behalf of African Americans' civil rights. "It's an opportunity for us to carry the legacy of civil rights in this country to a sometimes overlooked community," he said.

"I don't think any of us working in civil rights ever do anything on a legislative front that we don't expect to be challenged," Sims added. "In many ways, putting something forth that withstands a legal challenge is more important than a law that is never challenged at all."

Unlike in California and New Jersey -- the two states that currently ban the practice -- Pennsylvania has both a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled state legislature, which could affect the bill's chances for passage.

"I'm expecting there to be a larger conversation from religious opponents, but that's fine," Sims said. "If my colleagues need to really flesh out their concerns about religious issues, we're going to be happy to do it."

Conversion therapy is also practiced differently in Pennsylvania than it is in the other two states. California and New Jersey are home to the two largest conversion therapy centers in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, Sims said, "we haven't seen similar, one-stop giant treatment facilities that are, en masse, doing reparative therapy. Here it's almost like your town dentist, and that -- no question -- complicates things."

Massachusetts and New York are also considering similar legislation. Sims and Williams said they expect their bill to be addressed in next year's legislative session.

For more on the history of the fight over the therapy, read The Huffington Post's profile of a former therapist who has renounced the work, and one of his patients who spent $35,000 attempting to become straight.

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