State legislation signed this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer officially outlaws so-called conversion therapy to “convert” LGBTQ kids into heterosexuality or traditional gender expectations.
MICHIGAN—If state Reps. Felicia Brabec and Jason Hoskins can help stop just one child from facing the trauma of LGBTQ conversion therapy, their newly signed bills will serve their purpose.
But with recent research showing that several thousand young Michiganders are still being threatened with or subjected to the harmful and scientifically discredited form of pseudoscience, they think their recent legislation-turned-law will play a much larger role in protecting children.
“This is all part of protecting the LGBTQ community here in Michigan,” Hoskins told The ‘Gander in May. “Ultimately, we want to be able to protect LGBTQ children and also get rid of the things that cause discrimination to flourish—and conversion therapy is one of those things.”
Brabec and Hoskin’s legislation—House Bills 4616 and 4617—garnered signatures from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week, officially making Michigan the 22nd state in the US to outlaw the practice of LGBTQ conversion therapy.
Whitmer said in a statement that banning the “horrific practice” of conversion therapy was necessary to help ensure Michigan remains a place “where you can be who you are.”
“As a mom of a member of the community and a proud, lifelong ally, I am grateful that we are taking action to make Michigan a more welcoming, inclusive place,” she said in a statement. “Let’s continue working together to ensure anyone can ‘make it’ in Michigan, expand fundamental freedoms, and fight back against any and all forms of discrimination.”
What is Conversion Therapy?
Conversion therapy, which has now been formally banned in nearly half the states in the country, refers to any treatment that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity—including eliminating their sexual or romantic feelings toward the same gender.
It’s an archaic, scientifically discredited, and dangerous practice that operates under the false notion that different sexual orientations and gender diversity are abnormal or unhealthy.
What’s the Problem?
Decades of research shows that conversion therapy simply doesn’t work—mainly because there’s no scientific way to use therapy to try to alter someone’s sexual orientation or identity.
But it isn’t harmless.
“This is a dangerous and discredited practice, just generally,” Gwen Stembridge, a manager at The Trevor Project, told The ‘Gander in May. “It is unsafe for Michiganders generally. We don’t want someone coming in and trying to implement a practice that will put people in danger.”
Studies have shown strong associations between past experiences with conversion therapy and adverse health effects like anxiety and depression. Among younger participants, conversion therapy has also been shown to lead to a higher likelihood of both substance abuse and suicide.
The so-called “therapy” has also been known to take many forms, from prayer and discussion, to more stomach-churning stories of electroshock therapy being used on gay men in the 70s—all under the premise of “curing” or “repairing” the “defect” of being an LGBTQ person.
“Talk therapy is still very harmful. There’s this idea that sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you—but we know that words are harmful for youth,” Stembridge said.
The American Psychiatric Association flatly rejected the concept of conversion therapy more than two decades ago, and 21 states have since enacted laws to restrict or ban the practice.
Whitmer also signed an executive order in 2021 that banned all state and federal funding for conversion therapy on minors, labeling it as a “harmful” practice to have in Michigan.
Still, recent estimates from The Trevor Project show that up to 15% of Michigan’s LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13-24 (or about 10,000 Michiganders) were threatened with or subjected to the therapy last year. And those who experienced the so-called “treatment” were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide, and nearly three times as likely to report multiple attempts over the past year compared to those who weren’t subjected to LGBTQ conversion therapy.
Erin Knott, the executive director at Equality Michigan, told The ‘Gander that contextualizing the full scope of the problem in Michigan can be difficult—namely because those who provide the services aren’t necessarily advertising them on billboards, and survivors are often traumatized.
“This is a practice that is happening in the shadows, but if it’s happening to one LGBTQ youth, that’s too many,” Knott said. “Nobody should be subjected to the horrors of conversion therapy.”
‘A Duty to Intervene’
Several cities in Michigan have enacted their own local laws that prohibit conversion therapy for children—including East Lansing and Ann Arbor. And Democratic state lawmakers have been trying since at least 2016 to get a statewide conversion therapy ban on the books in Michigan.
Every previous bill to ban conversion therapy for minors was introduced when the legislature was under Republican leadership and ultimately stalled in committees. But this year, under Democratic majorities, the legislation was introduced, passed through committees, and signed into law in only about two months.
The ban was approved by the Michigan Senate last month in a 21-15 vote—with all but one Republican voting against it—after previously being passed by the state House in May.
“We have a duty to intervene and be able to protect our children,” Hoskins told The ‘Gander.
Specifically, House Bill 4616 amends the state’s Mental Health Code to ban all licensed mental health professionals from engaging in conversion therapy with a minor in the state of Michigan.
House Bill 4617 amends state law to clearly define conversion therapy as: “Any practice or treatment by a mental health professional that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change behavior or gender expression or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward an individual of the same gender.”
The ban does not include counseling that assists people undergoing a gender transition.
Those who continue to provide the service could face misdemeanor criminal charges, and licensing sanctions—including the possibility of having their state license revoked altogether.
Brabec—a former Washtenaw County commissioner—was elected to her second term in the state House of Representatives in November. She’s also a practicing clinical psychologist with a master’s degree in clinical social work and over two decades of experience in the field.
“To be in a position now, not only as a psychologist but as a lawmaker, to actually stop this abhorrent practice, is something that I feel honored to do,” Brabec told The ‘Gander in May.
She added: “We know the devastating effects this so-called ‘therapy’ can have on people. We know the effects on suicide rates, depression, anxiety. Why wouldn’t we do something about it?
‘A Beacon of Hope’
Protecting the rights of Michigan’s LGBTQ community has been a top priority for Democrats since voters elected them to take charge of state government this year. In March, lawmakers also passed bills to amend the state’s civil rights act to codify LGBTQ protections and permanently outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In May, Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) also introduced legislation that would reportedly update Michigan’s “outdated” and “woefully inadequate” laws to better protect against hate crimes—including new sentencing guidelines that would make it easier for prosecutors to charge those who target others based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And last month, at the Motor City Pride parade, Whitmer signed an executive order to form the state’s first LGBTQ+ Commission—specifically to address issues facing Michigan’s LGBTQ community, including on topics like health, safety, and economic opportunity.
The stated goal: Make Michigan a place where anyone can build a brighter future.
“As we celebrate Pride, we must continue taking action to ensure that everyone has the freedom to be who they are in Michigan,” Whitmer said in a statement last month. “I will fight like hell to bring more diverse voices into the decision-making process. … While other states are engaged in the business of bigotry, Michigan is standing up for the LGBTQ+ community.”
The newly formed commission—whose members are appointed by the governor—is designed to advise Whitmer and the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity on ways to “eradicate and prevent discrimination” against the LGBTQ community, as well as address “other forms of inequality” that haven’t already been addressed by the state legislature, officials said.
Activists said the recent efforts mark a major milestone in advancing LGBTQ rights in Michigan, and ensuring that voices of the community are heard at the highest levels of state government.
“LGBTQ young people deserve to live authentically as who they are and the passage of these bills profoundly reaffirms this fundamental value and serves as a beacon of hope for LGBTQ young people in Michigan and beyond,” Kasey Suffredini, a vice president at The Trevor Project, said in a statement. “We applaud the state lawmakers for taking swift action in implementing these protections and building on the incredible bipartisan momentum of similar advances.”
Lawmakers in Minnesota, where Democrats also seized control this year, passed a similar ban on conversion therapy in April. In Arizona, Gov. Katie Hobbs issued an executive order last month that prohibits state agencies from using funds to promote or facilitate conversion therapy.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) declared a state of emergency for the LGBTQ community in May in response to what it called an “unprecedented and dangerous” spike in discriminatory legislation sweeping statehouses this year—the first of its kind in the HRC’s 43-year history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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