Therapies geared toward changing a minor’s sexual behavior would be banned under a bill in the state Legislature.
Lawmakers are hopeful the bill — which has passed the Senate — will add Washington to a list of other states that have outlawed conversion therapy and other practices that attempt to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The growing opposition to conversion therapy comes as many former recipients and psychologists suggest the practice can be mentally and physically scarring for children.
The practice can involve putting rocks in someone’s shoes, plunging them in an ice bath or breaking a child down through verbal exchange over the course of months, according to state Sen. Marko Liias, the Democrat from Lynnwood sponsoring a bill to prevent licensed heath care professionals from offering conversion therapy in Washington.
Psychologists familiar with conversion therapy said the treatments can be much worse. In the past — and possibly still — people were forced to watch pornographic material while being shocked with electricity or while under the effects of nausea-inducing drugs.
“Whether its electric shocks or just breaking someone down over months, both are torture, both are monstrous, and all of it should be illegal,” Liias said.
Almost 700,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have received conversion therapy in the United States, according to estimates from a UCLA School of Law study published last month.
Several major medical associations say there is insufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of conversion therapy, including the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.
Nine states have already outlawed the practice’s use on children, including Oregon, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Vermont, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Another nine — Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maryland, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, Virginia and Washington — have attempted to ban conversion therapy this winter, some with more success than others.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said in a media gathering last week that he believes there is no medical evidence to support conversion therapy and would support a bill banning the practice.
The bill still has to clear the House before that can happen. State Rep. Eileen Cody, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the health care committee that advanced the measure Friday, said she believes the bill has enough bipartisan support to make it to the governor’s desk.
Opposition to banning conversion therapy in Washington has come from Republican lawmakers who said they believe the horror stories of conversation therapy amount to child abuse, are already illegal and would not require an outright ban.
“We should not take away the ability for any individual to seek the treatment that they may choose, or that their parents may choose for them to have,” state Sen. Shelly Short, a Republican from Addy, said in a Senate floor debate last month.
Short voted against the ban along with 15 other Republicans in the Senate. One of those lawmakers, state Sen, Mark Miloscia, a Republican from Federal Way, said he believes the bill would bar doctors and therapists from discussing celibacy and other sexual topics with patients.
The bill — Senate Bill 5722 — states the proposed law would not “apply to speech that does not constitute the performance of conversion therapy by licensed healthcare providers on patients under age eighteen.”
Joining Republican lawmakers in opposition to the current bill are health care providers that offer conversation therapy.
Terry Trudel, a psychiatrist in Sequim who offers conversation therapy, said health care providers who violate a patient’s well-being can lose their license. An outright ban on conversion therapy, he added, would be redundant and punish people who responsibly offer the service.
Others question whether children would pursue conversion therapy if not for a social environment in the United States that condemns LGBTQ individuals.
One survey found Americans have become more uncomfortable with the idea of learning a family member is LGBTQ since 2014.
This week the U.S. Department of Education told BuzzFeed News it no longer would investigate claims filed by transgender students who say they were discriminated against for using the bathroom of the gender they identify with.
“LGBTQ individuals, no matter the fact that we passed marriage equality and other laws supporting acceptance of them, still experience punishment, bullying and adversarial behavior on a regular basis in their life,” Lucy Homans, a member of the Washington State Psychological Association, said. “Maybe that sort of [stress] leads families to believe adversarial practices like conversion therapy is a good option, and it simply isn’t.”
Douglas Haldeman, a former president of the California Psychological Association said in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian that “questions of orientation and identity ultimately require a thoughtful evaluation,” not conversion therapy.
“An understanding of people’s motivation, their background, their traumas — sure enough you’re going to uncover something where someone tried to gloss over something difficult in their life by attending to a social sanction of heterosexual identity,” Haldeman said.
On top of societal pressures, there are religious influences that might lead a child to believe it’s not okay to be LGBTQ, Haldeman said.
An estimated 57,000 LGTBQ children in the U.S. will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisers before they become an adult, according to the same 2018 UCLA paper.
Washington’s current bill would not prevent religious counselors from offering conversion therapy.
Liias, the bill’s sponsor, said he believes there are ways to ensure LGBTQ youth feel safe in Washington without interfering with faith-based practices.
Liias added he wants to address LGBTQ youth homelessness and improve access to reproductive services for transgender people in future legislative sessions if his ban on conversion therapy is signed into law.
Both would aim to cut down on the pressures LGBTQ youth currently face in the process of self-identification, Liias said.
“We are understanding more and more that these are not black and white issues, Liias said. “It’s not that you are gay or that you are straight, or that you are a man or you are a woman. There is a spectrum of variation in that, and so we need to be working with young people to support them as they do that process of self-identification.”