The 2021 Netflix documentary about conversion therapy, “Pray Away,” was a turning point for Doug Booth, a political activist and openly gay man living in Grand Rapids. After watching the film, he said he had to pick himself up off the ground.
Growing up in the Catholic Church, Booth struggled with his sexual orientation. “Throughout high school, knowing that I was different, I wanted to change,” Booth said. “I never was officially sent to conversion therapy, but I did everything I [could] for four years throughout high school, and that first year of college, to really figure out how to not be gay. It’s something that, almost 20 years later, I’m still suffering from the consequences of.”
In Michigan, conversion therapy is still completely legal in many jurisdictions, though some municipalities have taken steps to ban the practice. Booth felt compelled to work toward eliminating it altogether, across the state. But as he explored existing local and municipal bans, he recognized that banning conversion therapy in Ferndale or Hazel Park requires a different conversation than banning it on the west side of the state, which tends to be more religious and conservative. Still, he was, and remains, determined.
Eight Michigan cities have banned conversion therapy, including Ann Arbor, Berkley, East Lansing, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Madison Heights and Royal Oak. That works out to around three percent of the state’s population being protected, according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). Nationwide, the practice has been banned in 20 states and Washington, D.C. MAP estimates that 48 percent of minors in the U.S. live in states that ban conversion therapy.
As a board member of the Grand Rapids LGBTQ+ Healthcare Consortium, Booth started planning with the help of their leadership. On the advice of The Trevor Project, he launched a website (banconversiontherapymi.com) and, armed with data compiled with the help of a data analyst, built a coalition of like-minded individuals and organizations, starting with the religious community. To date, the site boasts support of more than 60 organizations, including University of Michigan Health-West, Grand Rapids Pride Center, Bethany Christian Services, the Michigan Psychological Association and numerous churches and businesses in the area. In addition, more than 1,000 individuals have expressed their support on Booth’s website.
“Throughout this,” Booth said, “we did discover that there is still a practice [of conversion therapy] here in Grand Rapids — at least one that we know of. Hopefully, there’s not more, but even one is too many.”
The existing bans in Michigan are aimed at conversion therapy practiced on minors by licensed healthcare professionals. For example, in Ferndale, a “counselor” who practices this widely and wildly discredited “therapy,” which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is subject to a $500 fine and 93 days in jail. That’s the stiffest penalty allowable for the crime, a misdemeanor. In other municipalities, conversion therapy is classified as a civil infraction, which is not subject to jail time.
While it’s a start, the fact remains that most conversion therapy occurs in religious settings. According to 2019 Williams Institute data, an estimated 57,000 LGBT youth (ages 13-17) in the U.S. will undergo conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18. And 16,000 LGBTQ+ youth will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18. These statistics apply to the states where conversion therapy is not already banned.
Aware of the repeated conversion therapy bills that have stalled in the state legislature, Booth wants to start city by city and create a patchwork across the state. While some may call municipal bans symbolic, he insists they have value.
“I’ve been doing this and trying to make myself more public with it because of the fact that I know what it’s like to grow up here and not feel like you’re surrounded by anyone else that’s like you,” Booth said. “So even if it’s symbolic, if you help that one individual maybe not take their lives or maybe think that they’re OK and there is something better, then it’s worth it.”
Booth’s point about suicide is a reality. Non-transgender LGB people who have experienced conversion therapy are more than twice as likely as their peers in the general population to attempt to kill themselves. What’s more, LGBTQ+ youth are already four times more likely to attempt suicide than youth who are not LGBTQ+.
Though it may be an uphill battle, Booth and others, like Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, are encouraged by the possibility of administrative actions. Consider that Gov. Whitmer issued an executive directive last year prohibiting the use of MDHHS-administered funds for the practice of conversion therapy on minors. And just last month, President Biden issued an executive order that asks federal agencies to ensure federally funded programs do not offer conversion therapy.
“We think the most effective way is through licensing of mental health professionals,” Kaplan said. “And I recognize that that doesn’t always cover conversion therapy that might be done through religious organizations. But the problem is when you have the government regulating religious organizations; you’re gonna run into First Amendment issues.”
At the same time, Kaplan said, if an individual is promoting themselves as a counselor yet are unlicensed, they should be subject to penalty. “To me, it’s a many-pronged approach,” he said.
Kaplan would like to see stakeholders sit down and take a look at what exists already, then explore the possibilities. Perhaps the Federal Trade Commission should be made aware of individuals or businesses that practice conversion therapy. The Consumer Protection Act could come into play, too. “Maybe those regulatory agencies also could have a say, making it clear to people that these are deceptive practices and you’re not allowed to advertise or to promote as such.” In a way, conversion therapy can be viewed as a “product” that doesn’t work.
The most important function of municipal bans is that they send a message, Kaplan said. “I feel the same way about local human rights ordinances,” he said. “Many times, they don’t have the resources or the mechanism in order to really redress the harm that’s happened, but I think they serve a very important function in sending a message that we are such a community and these are our values, and this is not something that is acceptable. So I think they can go a long way.”
Casey Peck is the Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. An attorney by training, she has been working for several years on supporting the passage of state and local bans on conversion therapy. Peck explained how her organization supports ending conversion therapy. It starts with awareness.
“It’s a combination of storytelling, of raising up that kind of evidence and data, so that people are aware that conversion therapy is not a relic of the past, it is still happening, and it is still harmful,” Peck said. “So, that’s a large part of what we do. We also work hard to build coalitions so that young people telling their own stories, [as well as] their families and parents who have been exploited by people who promote these practices, don’t have to stand alone.
“They have the backing of medical and mental health professionals who know that these practices are unethical and harmful and not part of what they want their profession to be known for,” she continued, “that they have the backing of faith communities who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Not in our name. We believe that LGBTQ youth should be loved and accepted as they were created, as they are.’”
Peck pointed to Virginia as a recent success story for a statewide conversion therapy ban. The efforts started out small but grew with each municipality. She compared how they started conversations and built momentum toward an eventual statewide ban to the way LGBTQ+ people have secured rights over the decades: in the workplace, housing and public accommodation. It took time. Bills were introduced repeatedly. Then, eventually, the Virginia State Legislature gained enough bipartisan support that when the opportunity came, they were able to pass the bill.
Enacting an ordinance to ban conversion therapy is easier in some municipalities than it is in others, certainly, but it’s a straightforward process. And The Trevor Project and Doug Booth are here to help. For example, Booth’s website includes language that is broad enough to use as a template for any interested parties. It’s also common to “borrow” language, just as Royal Oak used language from Ferndale’s ban. Peck had advice for presenting the ban to the decision-makers in one’s jurisdiction.
“You want to be able to walk in there prepared to tell the story of how conversion therapy affects a particular community,” she said. “If there are survivors who are willing and able to tell their story, that’s fantastic; they should never have to stand alone. And everybody could tell a story about how being and living in a community that just rejects these dangerous and discredited practices is important to fostering an environment where all young people can survive and thrive and know that they are accepted and welcome.”
Back in Grand Rapids, Booth is waiting. To ensure he was in the best position to present the ban to the city commission, “That’s when I reached out to say, ‘Stop,’ and asked if I could present it to the Community Relations Commission, which I did in May,” Booth said. “And thankfully, they did release that memo to the city commission, city manager and mayor, just stating, ‘It’s time. You need to pass an ordinance to ban this.’
“And so that’s kind of where we are at the moment,” he added, “but I have over 60 organization [and] I have over a thousand individuals, including elected officials, on this list. There is a clear desire for the community to just stand up and actually start protecting LGBTQ youth in more ways than just words.”