Mike Pence supports conversion therapy

Vice President Mike Pence has supported conversion therapy — and government money to fund treatment programs that seek to change "sexual behavior."

Campaigners seeking to ban anti-gay conversion therapy are taking inspiration from Milwaukee and hoping to enact ordinances in Madison and Shorewood. 

An ordinance banning the practice was enacted in Milwaukee earlier this year with a groundswell of support from leaders of many progressive groups, which in turn has provided inspiration to campaigners in Madison and Shorewood.

Conversion therapy, also sometimes called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay therapy,” is the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The practice is condemned by every major medical and mental health organization in the United States, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and American Medical Association.

Research shows the practice poses devastating health risks — depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness and even suicidal behavior.

In June, lawmakers sent Delaware Gov. John Carney and Maine Gov. Paul LePage bills to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy.

And Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu recently signed legislation.

Sununu, in a press statement, said, “Discrimination — in any form — is unacceptable and runs contrary to New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die Spirit. If we really want to be the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, we must ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

California was the first to pass a ban on conversion therapy and New Jersey was the first state to enact a ban.

Connecticut, Nevada, Oregon, Illinois, Vermont, New York, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland and Hawaii also have laws or regulations protecting youth from the practice.

In Delaware, Carney has said he supports the legislation lawmakers sent him. It’s unclear what LePage will do with the bill in Maine.

“Other Republican governors across the country — including most recently in neighboring New Hampshire — have signed similar bipartisan legislation, and it’s vital for Maine’s LGBTQ youth that Governor LePage do the same,” said Marty Rouse, field director for the Human Rights Campaign.

A proposed ordinance was introduced in the Madison city council in early June. The measure would allow for a fine of $500 to $1,000 for a violation, and each day a person is found to have practiced conversion therapy would be a separate violation.


Shorewood’s campaign

In Shorewood, the Shorewood Solidarity Network is advocating for an ordinance. 

Earlier this spring, the village board adopted a resolution opposing the practice of conversion therapy and indicating an interest in working toward a broader ordinance.

In May, 22 people involved in the grass-roots SSN signed a letter to the village board of trustees in May stating that an ordinance against conversion therapy “would hurt no one in the village, and potentially protect some people from deep and lasting harm. We hope the board will continue to step up and do its part in joining with municipalities that effectively ban conversion therapy.”

The members referred to Milwaukee’s ordinance, which they wrote “lays out specific penalties for businesses selling conversion therapy.”

Kenneth Cole, who moved back to Shorewood with his wife and daughter in 2011, signed the letter. 

He described the Shorewood Solidarity Network as a diverse group “born out of concerns raised following the 2016 election.” The group held a Shorewood Walks Together march in February 2017 and drafted a Resolution for Justice and Dignity that the village board adopted.

“In some respects, our effort in banning conversion therapy is merely honoring our commitment the village endorsed in the Resolution for Justice and Dignity,” Cole, a licensed psychologist, wrote in an email to WiG. “Beyond that, as a psychologist, father and someone who strives to be a person of compassion, I know it is not my place to tell someone who they can and cannot be. In my practice, I have been honored to work with people exploring their identity and striving to be who they deep down know themselves to be. It is morally wrong of me as a psychologist and ethically corrupt for me to impose on them a value system that predetermines that for them.”

The purpose of therapy, Cole added, is not to change anyone. “Rather, it is to help them tap into, embrace and begin to truly know who they are.”

In preparing to press for an ordinance, SSN drafted a FAQ sheet — “Conversion therapy ban in Shorewood? Frequently Asked Questions,” addressing:

  • What is conversion therapy? Conversion therapy is the unethical and harmful practice of providing interventions with the purpose of “curing” a person’s homosexuality or attempting to change an individual’s gender identity or gender expression.
  • Is conversion therapy being practiced in Shorewood? Apparently not, but it is practiced in Brookfield and other neighboring cities.
  • How is the issue relevant to Shorewood? The village is known for its LGBTQ-friendly policies and as a progressive community.
  • Does a ban limit religious freedom? No, because clergy would not be prevented from counseling people in their religious tradition. It would ban selling a service.
  • If it is banned in Shorewood, won’t practitioners go elsewhere? Yes, but the goal “is to build a network of municipalities and states that ban it, which not only protects LGBTQ people — especially youth — but sends a message to conversion therapy practitioners that their business is harmful and not welcome.”

In mid-May, GLSEN — a national group promoting safe schools for LGBTQ kids and educators — called on its supporters to “act now” to support bans on conversion therapy around the country.

“Recent estimates by the Williams Institute at UCLA indicate that over 20,000 LGBTQ youth in states without these bans are at risk of experiencing this trauma at the hands of a medical professional,” said Sarah Munshi, GLSEN state and district policy manager. “We need you to let your legislators know that these practices are inhumane and need to end in Wisconsin.”

HRC and National Center for Lesbian Rights also have been lobbying for legislation across the country.


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