Following today's 6-1 vote by county commissioners, Palm Beach County is poised to become the first county in Florida to enact an ordinance to prohibit conversion therapy for minors. Commissioner Hal Valeche cast the sole vote against moving forward with the ordinance. A final vote is required later this month before the ban may take effect.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change efforts, encompasses a range of discredited counseling practices by which health care providers or counselors seek to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression through aversion treatment.
The ban, which covers the county's 39 municipalities and unincorporated areas, applies to doctors, osteopaths, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, marriage or family therapists and counselors licensed by the State of Florida. It also extends to people who perform counseling as part of the person's professional training.
The ban does not apply to members of the clergy unless they are also licensed -- or in training to become -- mental health professionals.
Retired judge Rand Hoch, PBCHRC President and Founder, recognized the need to protect children from practitioners of conversion therapy.
"Children are almost always forced into conversion therapy by parents who find it impossible to accept the fact that their children identify as gay or lesbian," said Hoch. "Instilling self-hatred in children through psychological torture is not therapy."
PBCHRC is partnering with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Both organizations have been successful in their efforts to protect minors from being subjected to the harms caused by conversion therapy.
Last May, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a comprehensive report entitled "Quacks: 'Conversion Therapists,' the Anti-LGBT Right, and the Demonization of Homosexuality."
"Conversion therapy is an extremely dangerous and fraudulent practice that claims to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity," said Scott McCoy, SPLC's senior policy counsel. "This bogus practice is premised on the lie that LGBTQ individuals have a 'condition' that needs to be cured. Today, the Palm Beach County Commission took a step in the right direction by approving this ordinance to ban this harmful practice on minors. The county commission has sent a message to LGBTQ youth: 'You are perfect the way you are and do not need to be 'fixed.'"
Dr. Rachel Needle, a local psychologist, told county commissioners that the practice of conversion therapy is based on two false premises.
"First, it is based on the falsehood that being gay, lesbian or transgender is a mental disorder or defect that needs to be cured," said Needle. "And second, it is based on the presumption that being LGBTQ is something that can actually be changed through therapy."
Needle, who is also an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University, stated that the potential risks of conversion therapy on children include shame, guilt, depression, decreased self-esteem, increased self-hatred, feelings of anger and betrayal, loss of friends, social withdrawal, problems in sexual and emotional intimacy, hostility and blame towards parents, high risk behaviors, confusion, self-harm, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
"Any ethical mental health practitioner should not attempt to cure or repair gender identity or sexual orientation through these scientifically invalid techniques," said Needle. "Attempting to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity can have a devastating impact on a child or teen."
"As a county commissioner, it is my duty to work to ensure the safety of our residents -- especially our children," said Mary Lou Berger, who brought the ordinance forward on behalf of PBCHRC. "Conversion therapy has been rejected by virtually every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades. No child in Palm Beach County should be subjected to this so-called treatment."
Leading the opposition to banning conversion therapy was Dr. Julie Harren Hamilton, a local psychologist who treats patients for what she refers to as "unwanted same-sex attraction.
Hamilton served as president of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization that has advocated anti-LGBTQ therapy for children as young a three years old and has encouraged parents to have their children marginalize and ridicule their LGBTQ classmates.
Hamilton has repeatedly tried to persuade elected officials to allow therapists to continue to attempt to change children's sexual orientation or gender identity through sexual orientation change efforts. However her campaign has failed in all eight of the cities cities in Palm Beach County which have considered -- and have enacted -- bans on conversion therapy for minors.
Local children's rights advocates have long been in the forefront of the opposition to conversion therapy.
In November, 2009, more than 100 demonstrators turned out to protest Hamilton's NARTH conference in West Palm Beach at which conference organizers held workshops to train therapists how to convert LGBTQ individuals to become heterosexuals.
Nearly every major medical and psychological association in the country has come out in opposition to conversion therapy. These include the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American College of Physicians, the American Counseling Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the American School Health Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the Pan American Health Organization, the Regional Office of the World Health Organization and the World Psychiatric Association.
"The American Psychological Association has linked conversion therapy to depression, substance abuse and even suicide, and these risks are particularly acute for youth," said Carolyn Reyes, Youth Policy Counsel and Coordinator of NCLR's BornPerfect Campaign to end conversion therapy "We applaud the efforts by the county commissioners to ensure that the children of Palm Beach County are protected from these harms, and that their families aren't duped by trusted professionals to whom they turn for support during a vulnerable time."
Conversion therapy has also been rejected by the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association and the School Social Work Association of America.
Across the nation, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Pima County (AZ), Cincinnati (OH), Seattle (WA), Pittsburgh (PA), Toledo (OH), Columbus (OH), Allentown (PA), Dayton (OH) and Athens (OH) have enacted laws preventing licensed mental health providers from offering conversion therapy to minors. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promulgated regulations which bar public and private healthcare insurers from covering conversion therapy.)
Last week, the New York City Council approved a bill that prohibits conversion therapy not only for minors, but also for adults. The bill must be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio before it can go into effect.
Sixteen Florida municipalities -- West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Riviera Beach, Miami, Wilton Manors, Miami Beach, Bay Harbor Islands, El Portal, Key West, Wellington, Tampa, Greenacres, Boca Raton and Oakland Park -- have enacted conversion therapy bans for minors. Broward County is expected to enact a conversion therapy ban early in 2018.
According to an Orlando Political Observer-Gravis Marketing poll of 1,243 Florida voters conducted last April, 71% think conversion therapy should be illegal for minors in Florida, 18% were uncertain and only 11% thought conversion therapy should be legal. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8%.
Every court challenge to the constitutionality of banning conversion therapy has failed and U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to consider cases which have been filed to overturn conversion therapy bans.
Legislation to ban conversion therapy has been introduced in Congress and in the Florida Legislature for several years; however, no action has been taken on any of the bills.
"While legislative leaders in Washington and Tallahassee refuse to act, we are going to do all we can do locally to protect the LGBTQ youth of Palm Beach County," said Berger.