St. Paul, Minn., Unanimously Votes to Ban Conversion Therapy

St. Paul City Council
St. Paul City Council

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (June 17, 2020) — The St. Paul City Council voted unanimously, 7-0, this afternoon to ban conversion therapy in the capital city of Minnesota. The vote makes St. Paul the third city in the state to ban conversion therapy, after Minneapolis and Duluth.

The new ordinance prohibits licensed medical and mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy on minors. Violations would incur fines of up to $1,000.

In this morning’s city council public-comment period, a local therapist, conversion therapy survivor, university researcher, and the executive director of OutFront Minnesota addressed the harmful practice of conversion therapy from multiple perspectives. The comments occurred during a virtual hearing aired on the city’s website.

No one spoke in defense of conversion therapy.

The advocate

During public comment, Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, noted that the United Nations has characterized conversion therapy as a form of torture. “When professional therapists tell people that something is fundamentally wrong with them,” Meyer said, “that causes significant harm.

Meyer said Minnesotans are surprised to learn from OutFront that conversion therapy still takes place, and survivors’ accounts of abuse come as a shock. “We also know that there’s been conferences planned with conversion therapists in Minnesota,” Meyer said. “There was one last year in our western suburbs, another this year canceled because of COVID. We know that our cities can take a stand and fight back against this harmful practice.”

The therapist

Michelle Bahr, a drug and alcohol counselor in nearby Shakopee, commented as a therapist and as the mother of a gay son.

“In my last 13 years of experience, I have sat with those who have been wounded by this horrible practice,” Bahr said. “For many, drugs and alcohol seem to be the only way to numb the pain that these programs cause. It’s interesting that we call this conversion therapy when as therapists we know that it is not what we therapists are trained to do. We are not trained to encourage somebody to change who and what they are. Conversion therapy is a form of child abuse. Please don’t forget that when we say yes to conversion therapy, we are saying yes to abusing children.”

Reflecting on how people are fooled into seeking to change a familiy member’s sexual orientation or gender identity, Bahr said, “We think about what are all the other parents out there doing, who are being duped by religious leaders into sending their kids to these so-called ‘therapists.’ Perhaps they are intertwined in a religious institution that is falsely telling them that their child can be cured or can be changed. We have lost way too many sons and daughters and children to suicide because of conversion therapy.”

The mental-health expert

Andy J. Johnson, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at Bethel University, summarized the positions of the major mental-health and medical associations and emphasized that “this is not a matter of religion. This is a matter of putting an end to mental health malpractice. There is no scientifically rigorous evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of conversion therapy.”

The survivor

For 26-year-old Jory Miller, a Twin Cities conversion-therapy survivor, this was his second attempt to ban the practices that harmed him. His previous effort included testimony to a Minnesota House committee and letters to the editor. It was pretty disheartening, Miller said, when the Minnesota legislature in 2019 failed to ban conversion therapy statewide.

“I grew up very rural, and through just circumstance and coincidence my parents found out about my sexuality when I was 15 or 16 years old,” Miller said. During the ensuing conversion therapy, “a doctor of psychology was constantly alluding to sexual abuse that didn’t exist. They were looking for some sort of traumatic incident that didn’t happen to me. There was constant pressure to try to identify some sort of porn addiction which wasn’t a reality or even part of my coming out story. It was psychological torture that I endured for quite a while.”

When these fraudulent practices failed, Miller resorted to a kind of self-imposed aversion therapy.

“There was an incident where I took a JC Penney catalog and I went outside — my parents had horses,” Miller told City Council today. “And I would browse through the men’s section of the JC Penney catalog, and I would grab an electric fence to try to cure myself because the conversion therapy program wasn’t doing its job.”

The effort to change his sexual orientation continues to impact Miller’s mental health. “I’ve gone through quite a bit of therapy myself now to try to correct the thought processes that I created in response to the conversion therapy and the experiences that I had. [As a result of conversion therapy] I turned out to be quite confused about myself and my identity and how I can move through the world and what I could actually be and who I truly was.” Miller concluded his public comment saying, “To ban conversion therapy is necessary. It is nothing that children should endure and I hope you hear that this is something that St. Paul needs to pass immediately.”

The final vote

During the afternoon City Council meeting, the council reflected on the morning public comments. Councilmember Mitra Jalali agreed that conversion therapy is a form a torture and wondered why it took so long to ban. Councilmember Dai Thao pondered the potential impact of conversion therapy on himself, given the experiences of survivors.

Born Perfect is a survivor-led program created by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in 2014 to end conversion therapy by passing laws across the country that protect LGBTQ children and young people, fighting in courtrooms to ensure their safety, and raising awareness about the serious harms caused by these dangerous practices.

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