Blake Byle (they/he)
Conversion therapy. To some it means nothing. To me, it is none other than a means towards the end of erasing a person’s identity due to that identity being incompatable with the binary, heteronormative framework. In conversion therapy’s infancy the question which levitated around the issue pertained to its efficacy in “curing” this incompatability. That question has long since been answered by experts in the fields of psychology, social work, and health.
While these experts– including the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, the Child Welfare League of America and others– denounced the practice, some politicians in the state of Michigan are not so quick to act.
Before getting to the main story, it’s important to acknowledge that the health implications surrounding conversion therapy are key factors in telling its story and history. Nevertheless, this article will only pertain to the political implications of conversion therapy within Michigan’s state legislatures. It has already been established that conversion therapy has negative health implications and discriminates against queerfolk. Because of this reason, I will focus on the political arena as it relates to the failure of passed legislation banning conversion therapy.
In Michigan, conversion therapy has been on and off the radar of legislators for the past decade– although for Republicans it has never been on the radar. The story begins with former House representative Adam Zemke (55) who introduced a bill in 2014 which attempted to ban state liscensed councelors from practicing conversion therapy on minors. However, despite its textual narrowness, in-that it did not touch religious institutions or conversion therapy on adults, the bill continues to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of being introduced, referred to committee, and then denied a hearing.
After the bill died in 2014, Zemke attempted again to introduce the bill in 2016 and once more in 2018, when it again died after being denied a committee hearing. Zemke went from twelve cosponsors on the 2014 bill, to three in 2016, and then back up to nine in 2018. He would eventually term out and be unable to pass the bill during his tenure.
While things looked bleak for the bill’s future, there seemed to be hope on the horizon. In 2019, following her victory against incumbent Republican Marty Knollenberg, newly elected Senator Mallory McMurrow (13) revived the bill in the state Senate and coalesced with 20 cosponsors. At the same time, House Representative Yousef Rhabi reintroduced the bill in the House; he also received the support of 20 cosponsors. However, even though these bills had the most cosponsors thus far in the bill’s history they were no different than previous introductions in-that they, too, died before a committee hearing.
Well, where might that leave us and where are we today? Although this battle seems tedious and slow, it is important to acknowledge where small battles are being won. In 2021, the bill was reintroduced by representative Felicia Brabec (55) in the House, and by Senator Mallory McMurrow in the Senate. This time though, Rep. Brabec’s bill received 50 cosponsors out of the 52 House Democrats; Sen. McMurrow also received 15 out of 16 Senate Democrats. Despite this astonishing number of cosponsors both bills were referred to committee and then denied a hearing.
At this point in my research I began to get really discouraged. So, I decided to reach out and see if I could get hope from either representative and ask a few questions. Luckily, they were both happy to oblige.
First, I talked to Representative Brabec. We started with her telling me a little bit about her background. She received a masters degree in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan and has been a practicing counselor for over twenty-five years specializing in race and gender identity. There doesn't seem to be a better-suited representative to reintroduce the bill. The first question I asked was, “Knowing the bill’s history, how far did you think it was going to go when you reintroduced it?”
She responded, “Unfortunately one of the things we knew was that, because of the makeup of the legislature, the bills probably weren’t going to get a committee hearing. And, we most likely wouldn’t see them on the floor”
Further adding, “And that’s the really frustrating part, is that when we don’t have the gavel and we are not the gatekeepers, you can start to feel powerless… But I will also say that I find tremendous value in pushing the conversation”
Although it was a light glimmer of hope, this was the motivation I needed to continue on. I kept asking myself the same question, “What’s the value of screaming into an echochamber if my voice continues to be silenced?” Rep. Brabec helped me find that value.
Next, I spoke with Sen. McMurrow, who made headway by gaining the first Republican co-sponsor to sign onto Senate Bill 367, her reintroduced version of Zemke’s 2014 Bill.
When talking about the bill's history and trajectory Senator McMurrow said, “What I liked about this bill is, it’s intentionally narrow in scope in that if you are licensed as a counselor through the state of Michigan, that you should not be allowed to practice something that is universally denounced by every health organization… Something that’s been positive is that multiple municipalities have introduced it, Rep. Brabec came in last year and introduced a version in the House, and eight municipalities have enacted local ordinances prohibiting conversion therapy including multiple in my community like Royal Oak and Bloomfield.”
She seemed positive about the future trajectory of the bill and added, “Hopefully, as we build coalition communities, it will send signals to the State, especially the legislature that refuses to act, that you are out of step where local municipalities are on this issue.”
She made a good point. If state level politicians are not willing to implement policy change then it is the job of local communities and municipalities to build coalitions and demand change.
Another victory for Democrats and their allies came with Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Directive 2021-3 in July of 2021. At its most basic level the order banned the flow of state funding towards licensed therapists practicing conversion therapy on minors. When I asked Senator McMurrow about Governor Whitmer’s order, she said, “I think it’s great news, and it really sends a signal for where we are as a state; obviously that is even more narrow than our bill, but an administration change can change that policy.”
I learned from talking to Rep. Brabec and Sen. McMurrow that partisan politics are killing the democratic process- and along with it, this bill. What is a potentially good opportunity to work in a bipartisan way and pass legislation banning the practice of conversion therapy is wasted because the Republican party won’t lend an ear to an issue which is commonsensical.
One thing I learned by talking to each of the legislators is that small wins are still wins. Does this mean we should be complacent? Obviously, the answer is no. But, this work is exhausting, it’s meant to be that way so that we eventually tire and give up. Issues like these require glimpses of hope… small victories here and there. One-step-at-a-time.
Maybe next year we will get a Republican cosponsorship in the House, or maybe more Republican cosponsors in the Senate. Perhaps the following year the bill will get a hearing. And maybe after a few years the bill will be passed. Nonetheless, the battle to ban conversion therapy is long from over. Email your representatives. Send them a letter. Send them multiple letters. If we demand change then our representatives must implement it. And if not, then we will be waiting for the November elections.