Minnesota state Sen. Paul Gazelka, the Republican majority leader, faces a deeply personal and political dilemma as the Legislature weighs restrictions on so-called conversion therapy — the widely criticized practice of trying to turn gay people straight.
A DFL proposal to ban the practice with Minnesota children failed last week on a party-line vote after an emotional Senate debate where lawmakers in both parties recounted anguished stories from their own lives. But with some GOP senators threatening to upend their own Health and Human Services budget if the conversion ban were attached, Gazelka led the Republican caucus in voting it down.
Despite the defeat on the Senate floor, several members of Gazelka’s GOP caucus said they still want a bill to end conversion therapy this year, creating an internal rift that dredged up a lingering conflict in his own family.
Gazelka, a conservative Christian who has become a Capitol dealmaker, was silent during the middle-of-the-night debate, even as his emotions roiled underneath.
“I cry over this issue,” he said, choking up during an interview in his office.
One of his five children, Genna Gazelka, 30, came out as a lesbian as a teen. Genna, who now identifies as bi-gender and uses the pronoun “they,” is fiercely opposed to the practice of conversion therapy. In an interview prompted by the vote, Genna said the Gazelka family turned to a therapist who decried same-sex relations. “This is harassment, and it is tantamount to what could be said of torture or sexual torture,” Genna said of conversion therapy.
Gazelka acknowledged sending Genna to therapy as a teenager, but said it was for healing, not for sexual-identity conversion.
Now as one of the state’s most powerful Republican lawmakers, he said he is working to find a compromise that would ban coercive therapy techniques on children while preserving the right of therapists and pastors to speak freely with their patients, particularly those who say they are struggling with an unwanted same-sex attraction.
“I don’t want coercive or aversive counseling toward someone,” Paul Gazelka said. “It’s a fragile time in life, and I know because I’ve experienced it.”
For Gazelka, the issue stands apart from the partisan budget battle looming as the Legislature hurtles toward a May 20 adjournment deadline. It has fractured his caucus and his family.
Genna Gazelka acknowledged a history of mental health issues. “I understood why my parents sent me to therapy, especially looking back; it would be bad parenting not to [send] a person who was troubled and struggling,” Genna said.
But Genna said it was only after Gazelka and his wife, Maralee, suspected a same-sex attraction that the then-teenager was sent to the counseling practice of Marcus Bachmann, the licensed psychologist married to former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the conservative firebrand who ran for president in 2012.
“I went from having a somewhat supportive youth pastor counselor who was aware it was highly likely I was lesbian to being sent to Bachmann’s clinic,” Genna said, adding that the conversations with Bachmann exacted a sense of shame.
Bachmann, citing patient confidentiality, declined to comment, but said his practice has never used the techniques commonly associated with gay conversion. He said his business would be cited by state licensing authorities if he engaged in coercive or abusive techniques.
“It’s not who we are. It’s not something we would ever do,” he said.
Genna Gazelka said the Gazelkas later encouraged visits with Janet Boynes Ministries, whose website promises to help those “who are trapped in the sin of homosexuality and yearn to be set free.” Those conversations, along with other political disagreements, have strained the family’s relationship with Genna, now a northeast Minnesota writer.
Sen. Gazelka said he and his family sought only to help their child through emotional turmoil. Maralee Gazelka declined an interview through her husband’s Senate office.
“I have five children. We love them to the best of our ability,” the senator said. “She’s older. Her sexuality is her responsibility, not mine. My responsibility is to love her, which I have done all the way through.”
Gazelka is far from the only lawmaker with personal experiences around conversion therapy.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of the proposed conversion therapy ban, is one of the most significant Minnesota gay-rights advocates of his generation. He choked up during the Senate debate as he recalled suffering the drumbeat of shame in a fundamentalist Christian community he joined as a teen: “There was hardly anything worse than being what I knew I was deep inside myself.” In an interview, he shared stories of friends who drifted into substance abuse and personal isolation as they carried the scars of intrusive attempts at conversion.
Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, a physician, compared attempts at gay conversion to such archaic techniques as bleeding patients to treat infectious disease, frontal lobotomies for psychological problems and pulling teeth to treat schizophrenia. “The vote to sustain conversion therapy will not age well,” Klein said in the Senate debate. “It will be redolent down the years as we become more enlightened and understand that this was torture.”
Overcoming conversion therapy can take years, said Katie Spencer, a practicing psychologist and advocacy director for the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality. “It’s a trauma because the message of conversion therapy is, ‘Who you are is not OK. We have to change who you fundamentally are.’ Anytime you tell a human that, you are scarring their sense of worth and being. That’s a trauma that is hard to heal from.”
Some conservative Christians fear that a ban would be an assault on religious freedom.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the DFL measure is too broadly worded and would allow anyone in the state to bring legal action against entities that they see violating the conversion therapy ban.
“The entity might be a church. The entity might be the Catholic diocese,” Limmer warned.
Gazelka has expressed similar fears about intrusions into religious liberty.
An insurance agent and graduate of Oral Roberts University, an evangelical liberal arts school in Oklahoma, Gazelka, 59, has long focused on the intersection of business and conservative Christianity, a topic he explored in a book, “Marketplace Ministers.”
A former state representative, he was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2010, riding a national Tea Party wave and defeating incumbent Republican Paul Koering, believed to be the first openly gay Republican elected official in Minnesota. The primary took place after revelations that Koering had gone on a dinner date in Brainerd with a gay pornographic actor. Gazelka emphasized his conservative values and opposition to same-sex marriage, a cause he championed in 2012 as cosponsor of a failed constitutional amendment.
While Gazelka’s politics and rise to Senate majority leader created more tension between father and child, Genna had refrained from speaking publicly to respect the family’s wishes for privacy. But learning of Gazelka’s role in determining the outcome of the conversion therapy ban changed that.
“My question is, how can you say you love me and still do this, and do it at the governmental level, exercise your governmental authority, because you can’t stop me in my individual life,” Genna said.
Citing the emotional weight of the issue, Paul Gazelka has now turned to state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, to find an elusive compromise. That means the legislation now rests in the hands of another physician, and another lawmaker with a deeply personal connection to the issue of gay conversion therapy.
Jensen credits his own gay daughter with helping him shed views he learned growing up in a small, traditional town in southern Minnesota. “I’m exceedingly proud of her,” Jensen said. “She’s helped me grow, she’s helped transform the way I look at things.”
But Jensen said his patients are a bigger influence on his thinking on the issue. Over the years, he’s seen teens and adults struggle with depression, in some cases deciding to end their own lives.
“In those times, when people are trying to find themselves, the last thing they need is even the hint or the whiff that someone is messing with their mind and trying to get them to a preprogrammed point of view,” he said.
Jensen said he has been meeting with advocates on both sides, trying to strike a balance between protecting talk therapy and the free-speech rights of medical professionals and ensuring “young people still trying to find themselves aren’t being channeled into an aversive or coercive therapy.”
Jensen ended his remarks during the Senate debate by saying he would not take down the Senate’s Health and Human Services budget, and so would oppose Dibble’s amendment banning conversion therapy — an act he said filled with him with misgivings.
“When I drive home tonight, I’m pretty sure I’ll be nauseated all the way,” he said after the vote.
The ban could ultimately be decided by lawmakers negotiating a final budget package. Jensen and Gazelka are both confident an agreement is possible. Dibble, who has been advocating for the ban for years, said he, too, feels momentum. The issue is moving because of the courage of people who stepped forward to share their own stories, he said.
“Something very powerful is happening,” Dibble said. “Hearts are being shifted and moved. Minds are being changed.”
For Genna Gazelka, growing support from some Republicans is also welcome, albeit overdue. Genna is hopeful the ban will pass and, eventually, the strained family relationship will be fully repaired.
In 2012, Genna, then a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, wrote a paper that recounted the experience of being the first person in an extended family to come out as gay. The initial response, Genna wrote, was unfamiliarity and uncertainty. But “little by little by little, compromise on all our parts over the years has led to closer relationships with deeper understanding and respect for each other’s opinions.
“Because,” Genna continued, “as families should, they love me regardless.”
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.