“As a mom of a member of the community and a proud, lifelong ally, I’m grateful that today we’re banning
the horrific practice of conversion therapy in Michigan,” --Governor Gretchen Whitmer 2023
What is conversion therapy anyways? Conversion therapy, sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy”, is the practice of attempting to alter a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. This “treatment” can take many forms, including pseudo-scientific counseling sessions, exposing a patient to “purifying” substances, threatening a person with homelessness, and “corrective” rape. The terminology itself presents a serious problem, as the word “therapy” implies a voluntary and healing experience. Yet, conversion therapy is anything but healing for LGBT+ youth. Conversion therapy is just a means to enact violence against a group of young people trying to come to terms with their own identities; in other words, this practice does not do anything but perpetuate harm against the LGBT+ community.
According to the Trevor Project, over 15% of LGBT+ youth have been threatened with or have experienced conversion therapy. There are many consequences of allowing this practice to continue, including but not limited to: decreases in self esteem or self worth, the loss of friends/family, and an increased risk for homelessness. However, the most vital consequence of this practice is without a doubt the detrimental effects on LGBT+ youth and their mental health. San Francisco State University found that queer individuals who were highly rejected by their families and/or caregivers were 5.9x more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4x more likely to be victims of substance abuse, and 8.4x more likely to commit suicide. This shows that beyond reinforcing the rhetoric that queerness is something that needs to be “cured”, conversion therapy directly impacts the health of young people despite the claim this practice is for their benefit.
Conversion therapy is unfortunately still a widespread practice within today’s society. While conversion therapy is still present in the United States, several of these states have passed measures aimed at limiting or prohibiting the practice of conversion therapy for minors. In Michigan specifically, there has been a long history of attempts at passing a bill to protect LGBT+ youth from this harmful practice. Beginning in 2014, congressional representative Adam Zemke introduced a bill that would have prohibited state licensed counselors from utilizing conversion therapy on minors - however, this resolution did not touch religious institutions or protect LGBT+ adults from this practice, making the scope of the bill very limited. In addition to limitations in the text itself, the process of trying to receive a committee hearing to actually pass the bill was near impossible. Zemke’s attempt was ultimately unsuccessful as the bill was introduced and denied a hearing three times throughout his career in the House of Representatives. After Zemke’s attempts at banning this practice unfortunately fell through, Senator Mallory McMurrow attempted to revive his resolution in the Senate in 2019. Yet again, the bill died before receiving a committee hearing. This brings us to the current state of conversion therapy in Michigan:
House representatives Felicia Barbec and Jason Hoskins were able to introduce Bills 4616 and 4617, both aimed at protecting LGBT+ minors from the harms of conversion therapy. As Felicia Barbec argues, “There is no evidence that conversion therapy works, but there is evidence that shows it is dangerous to children”. With this argument in mind, the two representatives continued to fight for the bill to protect these children from the possibility of being subjected to conversion therapy in Michigan. Hoskins is the first openly gay person of color elected to the House in Michigan and Barbec is a practicing psychologist who has seen the harmful effects of conversion therapy firsthand. As a result, these two representatives were able to bring their personal perspectives and experiences to the House floor in order to sponsor the bill ending this legalized torture. Due to their efforts, in July 2023, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer officially signed the bills into law making it illegal for state practitioners and mental health professionals to offer or practice conversion therapy [to minors]. In addition to simply banning the practice, the bill outlines penalties for those found guilty of continuing to utilize conversion therapy for minors in the state of Michigan. Those found in violation of these bills could be subject to license suspension and/or sanctions, as well as standard disciplinary action.
The implications of Michigan becoming the 22nd state to pass legislation protecting LGBT+ youth from the harms of conversion therapy are tremendous. Erin Knott, Equality Michigan’s executive director, says “over 58,000 LGBT+ youth seriously considered suicide this past year, according to the Trevor Project… … House Bills 4616 and 4617 are suicide prevention bills”. Consequently, by ending the utilization of conversion therapy in Michigan, young lives are being protected. By signing this legislation into law, many LGBT+ youth are no longer at extreme risk of experiencing harms presented through conversion therapy. This increases not only their physical safety, but also their ability to explore their identities more freely. Obviously this is a generalization, and there could still be risks present for youth exploring their sexual orientation or gender identities. However, this bill is a small step towards increasing the overall safety and acceptance of the LGBT+ community throughout Michigan.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done to fully protect the rights and safety of the LGBT+ community. For instance, these bills, while necessary and a small step towards greater equality, do not explicitly protect members of the community older than 18 years of age. This leaves a large percentage of the community still at risk of being forced to endure conversion therapy and its long term impact. In addition to not necessarily protecting LGBT+ adults, the bill does not address the issues of sexual misconduct and use of “reparative therapy” practices in religious institutions, most notably the Catholic Church.
Even with these remaining issues left to address I believe it is important to take this small victory and celebrate how far we have come in the state of Michigan. More and more LGBT+ youth are now able to come out safely, or, at the very least, are now able to explore their identities without the threat of conversion therapy lingering over their heads. After all, it's about damn time we finally practice what we preach and let kids be true to themselves.
Finally, I wanted to provide a short list of resources for those who are at risk or need help regarding the effects of conversion therapy. This is not an exhaustive list, but I wanted to share some resources I found during my research to help those who are not as fortunate to have some legal protection against harmful practices like conversion therapy in their homes.