A new Minnesota legislator is renewing a push to ban a controversial practice aimed at trying to change the sexual orientation of gay people.
The practice, labeled gay conversion therapy, has been prohibited by 14 states and a number of cities in recent years. Two major movies released last year, including “Boy Erased” starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, further thrust the issue into the public spotlight.
Leading health organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, say there is no scientific evidence to back conversion therapy and that it can have adverse effects on a patient’s mental and physical health, particularly in cases that involve adolescents.
Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage, is reviving the proposed ban in the state House this year. His legislation goes beyond bills in some other states, which focused on conversion therapy targeting minors or offered by licensed professionals, by targeting anyone offering the services. The freshman legislator said his goal is to protect “children and vulnerable adults who are put into a difficult situation if they are pressured by their families to go through this incredibly harmful, medically negligent pseudotherapy.”
“In Minnesota, I think we pride ourselves on providing only the best and highest quality standard of care,” Cantrell, the only openly gay member of the state House, said. “[Conversion therapy] violates that tradition.”
It’s unclear how many Minnesota residents and practitioners would be affected by Cantrell’s proposal. One 2018 study estimated that, nationwide, 20,000 adolescents between ages 13 and 17 will be exposed to conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they turn 18. The figure doubles for attempted interventions from spiritual or religious advisers. Cantrell said that while he knows the practice is happening in Minnesota, exact numbers are hard to pinpoint due to patient privacy laws.
Opponents questioned that assertion. David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist who lobbies against conversion therapy bans as co-founder of the National Task Force for Therapy Equality, said he is not aware of any licensed members of his organization active in Minnesota. He criticized the bill as a “political move to ban free speech.”
“This is professional therapy,” he said. “It’s not some kind of boot camp ‘pray away the gay’ experience.”
Pickup, who is based in Dallas but plans to lobby against the bill in Minnesota, said 95 percent of his clients come to him for help “dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction” because they believe their feelings were caused by trauma. “We never force anyone into therapy for any issue, especially children,” he added.
The Minnesota Family Council has also come out in opposition of a ban. “The state of Minnesota should not come between individuals and the counseling options that they and their families want to explore,” CEO John Helmberger said in a statement.
Similar proposals introduced in previous legislative sessions failed to gain traction. This year, supporters of the ban have the backing of new DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who included a ban in his campaign platform, saying it’s “time to send this cruel practice to the ashbin of history where it belongs.”
The bill will need to win support in the Senate, where Republicans have a one-vote majority, to pass. The Senate Republican Caucus has not weighed in on the plan.
Cantrell said that while he has not yet talked to Republican colleagues, he’s hopeful the bill will garner their support. He said the bill, introduced this week, already has dozens of cosponsors in the DFL-majority House.
“I believe that we have the momentum of good governance and sound health care policy behind us in the House, and I hope that will carry us to getting the bill across the finish line this session,” he said.
OutFront Minnesota, a LGBTQ advocacy group, echoed that outlook, saying supporters are “cautiously optimistic that this can be done” given what it called a “pro-LGBTQ equity majority” in the House. In a statement, the group cited bipartisan support for similar measures across the country. Six bills banning the practice were signed by GOP governors.
“It’s clear that this isn’t a partisan issue,” spokesman Jacob Thomas said in the statement. “This is about ensuring Minnesotans are protected under the law from unethical and discredited bad medicine.”
Even if signed into law, such a ban could face hurdles in the courts. Conservative and religious groups have filed lawsuits against similar proposals in other places. Cantrell said that possibility was top of mind in crafting the proposal and that the bill was drafted to avoid triggering “any substantive legal challenge.”