Conversion therapy for minors aims to change sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice is banned in California, New Jersey and Washington D.C., but Florida may be well on its way to follow suit.
Senate Bill 204 introduced in December, spearheaded by Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), would ban licensed therapists in Florida from practicing conversion therapy on LGBT minors. SB-204 was referred to the Health Policy Committee on January 8.
A matching bill was initiated in the House by State Representative David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), Florida’s first openly gay elected official. HB-83 only applies to conversion therapy offered by licensed professionals. Religious and other non-professional organizations could still legally offer the therapy to minors, according to Terry Fleming, co-president of the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida.
“You can’t be in the LGBT community very long without hearing about families or churches that have tried to convert their kids,” Fleming said. “They’re pretty horrific stories and often result in kids trying to commit suicide.”
Those in support of the bill point to research by the American Psychological Association, which states these therapies have not been proven to be successful or safe, according to licensed psychologist Dr. Steve Pittman, the executive vice president of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, Inc. in Gainesville, Florida.
“Research shows that sexuality and sexual orientation isn’t so much a choice as it is a state,” Pittman said. “Sexuality really is on a continuum.”
While these therapies have been around for decades, there is only a relatively new awareness of the damage they can have on minors.
Research has found that lesbian, gay and bisexual minors are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention for LGBT youth.
“The Trevor Project is a fabulous resource because they specifically look at the entirety of the population,” Pittman said. “Any licensed professional who would be rendering that kind of therapy would be opening themselves up to a malpractice claim.”
Parents’ rights organizations have been a major roadblock in passing the bill. Groups such as the League of American Families have claimed bills like those passed in California and New Jersey violate a parent’s right to choose what is best for their child.
“While parental rights are an important thing to discuss, in this particular case it’s not about parental rights,” Fleming said. “It’s about protecting children from damage.”
Various initiatives have been implemented locally to provide supportive spaces for LGBT minors, such as Gainesville Equality Youth.
Co-founded by LB Hannahs, director of LGBT Affairs at the University of Florida, the group hopes to empower LGBT youth between the ages 13 and 18 through the formation of community and individual empowerment.
“An organization like this provides these kids with the opportunity to connect with folks who can validate their identity rather than trying to change it,” Hannahs said. “It’s really important to see yourself reflected in other people so you don’t feel so alone.”
With other topics at the forefront of the LGBT movement, issues including the dangers of conversion therapy can get swept under the rug.
Fortunately the efforts made by local community leaders and parents have led to an open dialogue among LGBT children on discrimination.
“We need to make sure that we’re building some kind of rapport with the students,” Hannahs said. “That we’re built into the culture of the community.”