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Massachusetts House Votes To Ban So-Called Conversion Therapy

A rainbow flag, the symbol of LGBT rights, flapping in the wind.
Ludovic Bertron
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05/2942525739
A rainbow flag, the symbol of LGBT rights, flapping in the wind.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 137 to 14 to ban the use of so-called conversion therapy to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of minors, going on record against a practice one lawmaker compared to torture.

Under the bill (H 4664), licensed health care providers in the state would not be able to engage in any practice "that attempts or purports to impose change of an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity, including but not limited to efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex" on a patient younger than 18.

Supporters of the bill hailed it as a way to protect vulnerable youth and said its passage would show support for lesbian, gay and transgender residents during Pride Month. Two Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill raised concerns about what they described as limitations on free speech.

"Conversion therapy is a thoroughly discredited form of treatment which purports to 'convert' the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of LGBTQ people," Arline Isaacson and Gary Daffin, co-chairs of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, wrote in a message to lawmakers. "It is premised on the belief that being LGBTQ is an illness or an abomination which must be changed, cured or 'converted.'"

Rep. Kay Khan, who filed the original version of the bill, said exposure to conversion therapy can be "emotionally and psychologically traumatizing" for youth, and that there is "broad consensus" in the medical community that attempts to change a minor's sexual orientation and gender identity are ineffective, unnecessary and harmful.

Rep. Sarah Peake said conversion therapy can sometimes involve aversion therapy and physical abuse, and Rep. Jack Lewis called it a "barbaric practice."

Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Groton Republican, said she closes her eyes during torture scenes in TV shows and movies.

"They have somebody in their presence that they're either trying to brainwash, get information from, and the way they do it is a biofeedback type of way. You don't give the response they want, they will inflict physical pain on you," Harrington said. "That is conversion therapy. You don't elicit the proper response, the right response, you're going to get hurt, and eventually in some prison situations, prisoners of war and such, they do become brainwashed, they do submit finally, but is that really what we want?"

Rep. James Dwyer of Woburn was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, joining 13 Republicans in opposition. The House's two unenrolled lawmakers voted in favor.

Andover Republican Rep. James Lyons offered an amendment that would specifically ban aversion therapy but would allow therapies that "utilize speech alone to assist the client or patient in achieving his or her desired sexual orientation or gender identity."

The amendment failed, with 34 votes in favor and 116 against.

Lyons said banning aversion therapy -- which is designed to make a patient associate a habit or action with an unpleasant sensation -- would provide protections the bill's backers sought, while not restricting medical professionals' speech.

Pointing to the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone around abortion clinics, Lyons said the Legislature has at times tried to limit free speech.

"It puts in place penalties for what some on the left don't want to hear," he said. "I think this is a dangerous road to go down."

Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, said the bill limits a "medically unrecognized practice," not speech.

"When you boil it down to its essence, this bill is about helping kids here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, doing right by our kids here in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and ending fraudulent, debunked and out-of-date medical practices," she said.

Though Peake said similar laws -- 13 states have passed conversion therapy bans for minors -- have survived legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, Billerica Republican Rep. Marc Lombardo warned the measure here could end up in court.

Andrew Beckwith, the president and general counsel of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said the bill would likely be deemed unconstitutional after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday dealing with restrictions on "professional speech" at crisis pregnancy centers.

"We are currently working with attorneys at Liberty Counsel, as well as Alliance Defending Freedom, who successfully litigated yesterday's Supreme Court victory on 'professional speech,' to explore all options available in defending therapists and the families they serve from this unconstitutional legislation," Beckwith said in a statement.

Lewis, a Framingham Democrat, said he served as the executive director of an organization that worked with LGBTQ youth before he was elected to the House. In that role, he said, he heard from young people who were afraid their parents would force them to go to a therapist who would try to change "something that was crucial to the person they knew they were."

"To youth out there who feel that who you know you are on the inside doesn't match what people see on the outside, I hope you hear from every one of us today something that I didn't hear enough growing up: there is nothing wrong with you," Lewis, who is gay, said to applause from his colleagues.

This report was originally published by State House News Service. 

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