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By Shelby Clark Petkus
Last week, State Rep. Adam F. Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) spoke on WDET’s Craig Fahle Show about a bill that would ban ex-gay conversion therapy for those under 18 in Michigan. House Bill 5703, introduced on July 16, would prohibit “Any practice by a mental health professional that seeks to change a minor’s sexual orientation.”
Zemke emphasized the bill’s necessity as a protection for minors, “Being gay isn’t something you can fix through therapy, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s important we protect minors’ civil rights.” He told Fahle, “(Minors) blindly or innocently look to adults to give them guidance, and if we’re saying it’s okay for adults to give them guidance to something that doesn’t work and is psychologically harmful, we’re not doing our due diligence to protect them. At the end of the day, children have a right to be whoever they are.”
The American Psychological Association has stated the therapy – which often attempts to change a minor’s sexual orientation through counseling that can include prayer – is harmful, going so far as to say that “attempts to change orientation are ineffective” and can result in suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety. The APA currently urges professionals to avoid the “conversion” process.
Patrick McAlvey, a former patient of conversion therapy, was also on the show. A current recruiter for Google, McAlvey told Fahle, “I did start going to a supposed ex-gay therapist who was a part of my church community. This person was presented as an expert. He informed me that no gay man was happy, that all gay men were addicted to drugs and random sex. It was clear to me that I had to do everything I could to beat it.”
From age 11 to about 19, McAlvey – intending to keep his sexuality a secret from his parents – felt the pressure to change from his community and by the therapist. “I had been pre-programmed for judgment by people in my life, so finding those attractions within myself was terrifying,” he recalls. “He (the therapist) said God could change my attractions and he could help me through psychological therapy. At first, I was so excited, because I thought there was a way to get out of this life of misery he had described. As years went on and I didn’t see change, it became more and more devastating, like I wasn’t working hard enough.”
The therapist in question had not had proper licensure when McAlvey began with him, though he did attain an advanced degree during McAlvey’s visits. The fact that conversion therapy is not well regulated is also part of Zemke’s desire to see the bill passed.
Obstacles To Change
As a result of banning conversion therapy, mental health codes in the state would change. Before that point is reached, Fahle predicted possible challenges Zemke will face. “Rep. Gail Haines (R-Waterford), head of the House Health Policy Committee, doesn’t support the bill and basically controls the agenda,” the Fahle noted. Zemke responded positively, noting, “I’d like to think other people have influence on the agenda. It’s a conversation Gail and I will have to have. At the end of the day, it’s a civil rights issue, and I know she is supportive of civil rights.”
Other possible challenges include what Gov. Chris Christie has faced since passing the bill in New Jersey. Zemke is aware that the argument against the therapy’s ban is rooted in free speech, but “the appeals court in California ruled it wasn’t a violation, and the Supreme Court refused to take it up further. (This ban) is long overdue in Michigan. We’ve received a number of commitments of support on both sides of the aisle if we get this bill to the floor. Our goal is to get it to the floor.”
Nationally, the movement to ban ex-gay therapy continues to grow as even former proponents decry it. The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) published a joint letter with nine former leaders of “ex-gay” ministries denouncing the harmful practice. The letter, signed by such former ex-gay advocates such as Brad Allen and Darlene Bogle, states, “As former ex-gay leaders, having witnessed the incredible harm done to those who attempted to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, we join together in calling for a ban on conversion therapy. It is our firm belief that it is much more productive to support, counsel, and mentor LGBT individuals to embrace who they are in order to live happy, well-adjusted lives. We fully support the aim of #BornPerfect to bring an end to conversion therapy.”
The #BornPerfect campaign, launched by the NCLR in June, works “to protect LGBT kids from the harms caused by attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In the same interview with Fahle, Zemke referenced ex-gay conversion therapists closer to home. “At least three affiliates of the Restore Hope Network are in Michigan practicing ex-gay conversion,” the representative said. “It’s unclear how many they’ve tried to convert. The founder’s husband, who claimed to be ex-gay, has now come out as gay. It’s important to have insight, legally, to say this conversion therapy is wrong.”
When Fahle asked if any part of the therapy is worthwhile, McAlvey seems at a loss of words before saying, “It didn’t work, obviously, so it wasn’t successful. It left enormous damage that’s taken years to heal.” Zemke closed the interview by saying, “I’m very supportive of equal rights for all individuals, especially members of the LGBTQ community that have been really not protected. There’s absolutely no science that says that this works or is a good thing. We stand up for kids in this case, and that’s the obligation we have as lawmakers.”