PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — Twelve cities and two out of 67 counties in Pennsylvania have ordinances in place that ban conversion therapy, according to the Movement Advancement Project. A statewide ban has been proposed several times, but it has yet to pass through the legislature.
According to GLAAD, “Conversion therapy is any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.” The practice is widely discredited by mental health organizations including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and more.
In December of 2016, Pittsburgh became the first city in Pennsylvania to ban conversion therapy. A handful of other municipalities followed up with their own bans, including Allentown, which banned the practice in July 2017.
“Conversion therapy causes real harm for LGBTQ youth,” says Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown. “It leads to higher rates of substance use. It leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety. It leads to higher rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
Shanker helped develop the conversion therapy ban ordinances for Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading. The ordinances prohibit licensed health professionals from practicing conversion therapy with minors, and violators of the policy could have their business licenses revoked.
Reading’s City Council unanimously approved a conversion therapy ban for the municipality in December 2017. “I think as elected officials, anything you can do to protect people is an important thing to do,” says Reading City Council member Donna Reed, who voted on the ordinance.
Conversion therapy can fly under the radar. GLAAD notes that sometimes providers will even use different names to refer to the practice, like “sexual reorientation efforts” or “reparative therapy.”
Carmen McKinney, a behavioral health clinic supervisor at Harrisburg-based Alder Health Services, says that even in less overt ways, personal bias may influence the way counselors interact with and provide services to LGBTQ youth.
Reed hopes that each new generation is more accepting than the ones before, but even if that is the case, LGBTQ youth may still be subjected to conversion therapy.
Among the 2017 Reading City Council members who approved the city’s ban were two social workers and one high school teacher, and Reed says that “all three of them had witnessed individual cases where minors were impacted by someone wanting them to change.”
McKinney says, “I’ve worked with hundreds of people in this area, and yes, it is still happening, and yes, there are people my age, your age, younger, older who were subjected to this kind of treatment.”
So far, Reed and Shanker do not know of any violations of the ordinances in Reading, Allentown, and Bethlehem, but they say that in addition to banning a harmful practice, the ordinances send a message of acceptance to LGBTQ individuals.
“They’ve sent a very clear message to LGBTQ youth that they were born perfect, and that their community supports them just as they are, that they’re doing fine just as they are,” says Shanker.
“It’s not really so much about banning a practice as protecting our kids,” says McKinney, noting that individuals who face conversion therapy and the rejection that goes along with it can experience shame, guilt, hopelessness, and other long-term mental health challenges.
“There are policy solutions to the problems that exist in our communities, and municipal conversion therapy bans are one policy solution,” says Shanker. Those bans have only been instituted in a handful of municipalities in Pennsylvania, though.
Just about an hour’s drive from Reading, Lancaster City does not have a conversion therapy ban in place, although Lancaster City Mayor Danene Sorace says she would like to have one if possible.
Sorace looked to the ordinances in Allentown, Reading, and Bethlehem for guidance for Lancaster legislation, but found that her city did not have the same authority over business licenses as the other three municipalities.
The city of Lancaster does not have a business license program, Sorace says, so it would not be able to revoke licenses of anyone who violated the ordinance, and Sorace is unsure of another way the city could implement a ban at this time.
In an email, Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition Executive Director Karen Foley says, “When proposed in February, local officials claimed they ‘have no teeth to enforce [a conversion therapy ban in Lancaster],’ but the policy leaders, elected officials, and national organizations like Born Perfect are just as baffled as we are as to why it’s being denied.”
Foley continues, “We would be more than happy to work with the city towards a solution…It is time for definitive action towards progress. Legislation must not protect the people who cause harm to the LGBTQ+ community.”
Lancaster’s City Council released a resolution in March of this year condemning conversion therapy, but Sorace says a ban encompassing Lancaster would likely need to come from the state legislature.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims (D), who has sponsored multiple statewide conversion therapy bans, says a statewide conversion therapy ban has been proposed five times, including in this most recent 2020-2021 session. The ban has yet to be passed.
“I always thought a bill like this, because it had to do with abusing children, would be the most likely to pass,” says Sims. “I still feel like it is going to be one of the earliest LGBTQ equality bills to pass, and with the new Republican leadership this year of the House, I’m hopeful that this is the term.”
Sims has a personal connection to the ban he hopes to get passed. “I was the first out member to ever join the legislature, and conversion abuse is one of the most harmful things that happens to LGBTQ people, and it happens to us generally among the most vulnerable times in our lives,” Sims says. “I’ve dated people who have been through conversion abuse, and I’ve seen first-hand how harmful the effects can be.”
Sims says the main barrier to passing the bill is Republican opposition. abc27 reached out to multiple Republican spokespeople for comment, but none responded to our requests.