“When you are forcing somebody to repress who they really are, or at least the discovery of who they are – that’s not freedom, that’s not the Gospel,” Dylan Gunnels, a LGBT rights advocate and survivor of ‘conversion therapy’ told openDemocracy.
Last month, Gunnels shared his experience with the city council of Columbia, South Carolina, where he lives. He described his own “psychological trauma” after enduring efforts to change his sexuality, saying: “Science shows [it] is more harmful than helpful.”
South Carolina's state capital is a recent example of a trend that has spread across the US – at least 90 cities, counties and other municipalities have now taken action against controversial ’conversion therapy’ practices, which attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Almost half (43) have done so since 2019.
After a six-month openDemocracy investigation, major aid donors and NGOs have said they will investigate anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ at health facilities run by groups they fund.
But unlike the other aid donors, US aid agency PEPFAR has not responded at all.
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Columbia’s city council passed initial approval on 4 May for an ordinance making it illegal “to provide conversion therapy or reparative therapy to a minor […] if the provider receives compensation for such services”. It was passed in a final vote on 16 June.
These practices have been condemned by dozens of medical associations globally and are “really terrible, discredited and harmful”, said Logan Casey, senior policy researcher at the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) civil society group, based in Colorado.
Casey attributes action against ’conversion therapy’ at the local level to “a growth in public awareness”. It “really flips a switch for folks that this is still a contemporary issue, and something needs to be done about it to protect children,” he said.
“It breaks my heart to understand that a young person would be subjected to such things,” Columbia council member Tameika Isaac Devine told openDemocracy.
The Trevor Project, which advocates for bans on ’conversion therapy’, found in a 2020 survey that 10% of LGBTQ youth had experienced these practices and “reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year” compared to those who had not.
Local action – and opposition
Moves to ban ’conversion therapy’ appear to have gained momentum city by city, building public support and political power. So far this year, seven county and city governments passed bans, and at least one other (Norman, Oklahoma) is considering an ordinance.
The local human rights commission in Norman (a city of approximately 120,000 people) recently voted to recommend an ordinance prohibiting medical professionals from giving minors ’conversion therapy’.
These local laws typically prohibit “conversion therapies” for minors (under-18s) provided by healthcare professionals licensed by the state, but many do not prevent such practices if they’re carried out by religious organisations.
Prominent conservative groups that oppose LGBT rights, as well as some Republican lawmakers, have fervently opposed these bans.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have also passed legislation banning “conversion therapies” on minors, the latest being Utah and Virginia last year. Most of these bans were passed with bipartisan support; eight were signed off by Republican governors.
This year, at least three dozen bills to prohibit or restrict ’conversion therapy’ have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, but few have received a hearing.
‘Please do what is right for our youth. Please do what is right for our most vulnerable populations’
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to support the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which would prohibit commercial ’conversion therapy’ at a federal level. Another bill would ban federal funding via the Medicaid program being used to pay for such programmes. But the real action, it seems, is still at the local level.
“It’s incredibly important that we continue to pursue a federal ban on conversion therapy,” said MAP’s Casey, but “state and local advocates are going to continue to push for state and local bans and enact protections as soon as possible, while we wait for and work toward federal law to catch up to public opinion.”
“We see a lot of local-level ordinances popping up, as residents take it upon themselves to create protections when the state won’t step in,” Casey explained.
Resistance and resilience
Columbia councillor Devine described how the council examined ordinances approved by other cities, with help from the LGBTQ+LO, a caucus within the National League of Cities (NLC), as well as text provided by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the most prominent LGBTQ advocacy and lobbying organisation in the US.
“Please do what is right for our youth. Please do what is right for our most vulnerable populations,” Dylan Gunnels told the council. “You are sending a message by doing this,” he argued, that equity and the protection of youth are “at the forefront for the city”.
Gunnels is the founder of the Agape Table, a group that supports LGBTQ people of faith who have experienced trauma, including undergoing ’conversion therapy’. After failing in 2018 to win a seat on the city council himself, Gunnels worked with his former opponent – and current council member – Howard Duvall on LGBTQ and inclusion issues.
While Columbia city council has been an “advocate and an ally”, according to Gunnels, local churches and religious groups joined forces to oppose the ban.
The Palmetto Family Council – a South Carolina affiliate of the Family Policy Alliance, a US Christian Right lobby group – and conservative evangelical churches launched a campaign of phone calls to city councillors to oppose the proposed ordinance.
“They’re sending a message […] that you’re not welcome at the table, that we’re going to do everything we can to fight against your true equity,” Gunnels said.
Republican state senator Josh Kimbrell also sent a letter to South Carolina’s attorney general asking him to “overturn” Columbia’s ordinance. Kimbrell described the ordinance as “political correctness run amok”.
Kimbrell “does not represent the citizens here in Columbia”, Devine told openDemocracy. “I don’t give a whole lot of attention to his letter.”
Earlier this year, Kimbrell sponsored an unsuccessful bill to add mental health professionals to the state’s ‘right of conscience’ laws, which provide legal protection for those who refuse to participate in procedures that violate their religious beliefs (such as abortion or prescribing birth control). Kimbrell claimed that the bill would “supersede any municipal ordinance”, including Columbia’s proposal to ban ’conversion therapy’. He also sponsored a bill to ban trans women from participating in high school sports.
Melissa Moore, a regional manager for the Women's Rights and Empowerment Network, and a veteran advocate for LGBTQ rights in South Carolina, said: “If our voices weren’t powerful, then those who oppose us wouldn’t work so hard to silence us.”
“The narrative that gets amplified about South Carolina are its bigoted lawmakers and the terrible things that happen to queer people, and Black and Brown people, and people who are living below the poverty level,” Moore said.
But, although reactionary politics in South Carolina are familiar to Moore, they said: “There’s another story here, and that’s the rich history of resistance and resilience.”
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