WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The District could become the second city in the U.S. to ban conversion therapy for some individuals over the age of 18 if a bill passed by the city council Tuesday night receives approval from the mayor and Congress.
The bill, B22-0972 -- Conversion Therapy for Consumers under a Conservatorship or Guardianship Amendment Act of 2018, amends the Mental Health Service Delivery Reform Act of 2001 to ban so-called conversion therapy for “consumers under a conservatorship or guardianship.”
The District banned licensed mental health professionals from providing conversion therapy to minors in 2014, and fourteen states now have a similar ban. A New York state regulation banning public and private health care insurers from covering the practice was instituted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016, and New York City passed a law banning the practice outright – even for adults – in 2017.
Conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy or sexual orientation change efforts, seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation – specifically, to change same-sex or homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions or to lessen them so that individuals can live a heterosexual lifestyle. Bans on the practice, including D.C.'s, typically focus on services provided by licensed professionals for a fee, and often exempt clergy and lay practitioners, such as life coaches.
As Dr. Marc Dalton, chief clinical officer at the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, testified at a council committee hearing in October, the practice has been condemned by every major mental health professional organization in the country, along with the World Health Organization.
“There’s an overwhelming consensus among mental health professionals that conversion therapy is not scientifically valid,” Dalton said. “It has proven ineffective, and worse, may lead to harmful outcomes, including depression, substance use, social isolation and suicide risk.”
The American Psychiatric Association released a position statement in 2000 saying there is no rigorous scientific research to substantiate the effectiveness of conversion therapy and that the “potential risks of reparative therapy are great… since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
Sexual orientation change effort proponents say they have a First Amendment right to offer services to individuals who want help addressing “unwanted same-sex attractions,” including those who are unable to reconcile their sexual attractions and religious beliefs.
The District’s latest attempt at limiting conversion therapy, sponsored by Democratic Councilwoman Mary Cheh, passed its second reading by a unanimous voice vote Tuesday evening with two council members absent. Unlike the NYC law, it provides no explicit penalties for providers who ignore the ban – NYC established a $1,000 civil penalty for the first violation, up to $10,000 for the third and all subsequent violations – and would only apply to adults with a court-appointed conservator or guardian. Dalton testified that any providers found to be violating the ban would be subject to discipline and penalties by the appropriate professional board.
The bill will now go to Bowser for a signature before heading to Congress for a mandatory 30-day review period. The mayor’s office said she would review the bill once she receives it, but noted that Dalton testified before the council on the mayor’s behalf.