West Palm Beach City Hall(West Palm Beach, Florida) At this evening's meeting, the West Palm Beach City Commission unanimously voted to prohibit licensed mental health professionals from engaging in conversion therapy on minors within city limits. The ban goes into effect immediately.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), 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 action was taken at the request of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council (PBCHRC), the county's most effective civil rights organization. Over the past 28 years, the independent non-profit organization has succeeded in having local public officials enact more than 110 laws and policies providing equal rights, benefits and protection for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) community.
Attorney W. Trent Steele, a longtime member of the PBCHRC Board of Directors, focused on the need to protect children from practitioners of conversion therapy.
"Conversion therapy is usually forced on minors by parents who find it impossible to accept the fact that their children identify as gay or lesbian," said Steele. "This so-called 'treatment' is extremely harmful."
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.
"Conversion therapy is an extremely dangerous and fraudulent practice that claims to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity," said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This bogus practice is premised on the lie that LGBTQ individuals have a 'condition' that needs to be cured. This evening, the West Palm Beach City Commission took a step in the right direction by approving this ordinance to ban this harmful practice on minors. The commission has sent a message to LGBTQ youth: 'You are perfect the way you are and do not need to be 'fixed.'"
At the first reading of the ordinance on October 24, Dr. Rachel Needle, a licensed psychologist who practices in West Palm Beach, told 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 secondly, 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, told city commissioners 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.
To support her assertions, Needle provided the city with "abstracts of eleven highly regarded academic studies which empirically conclude that conversion therapy is at best ineffective, and at worst extremely harmful"
"Any ethical mental health practitioner should not attempt to cure or repair gender identity or sexual orientation through these scientifically invalid techniques," Needle stated. "Attempting to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity can have a devastating impact on a minor."
"I strongly believe the commission should enact this ordinance to protect children and adolescents from a practice that is far outside the bounds of any ethical psychological treatment plan," said Needle. "Passage of this ordinance will send an important message to LGBTQ youth in our city: there is nothing wrong with your sexual orientation or gender identity."
Although Dr. Julie Herren Hamilton, a psycholgist from Palm Beach Gardens who is a member of the South Florida Association of Christian Counselors, spoke out against the ordinance at the October 24 City Commission meeting, neither the mayor nor the city commissioners were moved.
While she did not identify herself as such, Dr. Hamilton served as the President of The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) for several years.
NARTH was a small, but well-funded for-profit organization made up of therapists who sought to diminish the rights of LGBT people by singling them out as having mental disorders. The organization advocated anti-LGBT therapy for children as young a three years old and encouraged parents to have their children marginalize and ridicule their LGBT classmates.
At a NARTH conference Dr. Hamilton organized in West Palm Beach in 2009 drew more than 100 anti-NARTH protesters.
In 2012, the organization's 501(c)(3) tax exempt status was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
During the week prior to tonight's vote, the mayor and city commissioners received dozens of e-mail petitions urging them not to enact the ban. The petitions were the work of Robert Tyler Hamilton, a coach at The Kings Academy, who is married to Dr. Julie Hamilton. The Kings Academy is a private Christian College which refuses to prohibits the hiring of openly LGBT personnel and refuses to allow open LGBT students to attend the school.
In addition, on November 3rd, The Liberty Counsel sent letter notifying West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio that if the city enacted a ban on conversion therapy, his organization "stands ready to vindicate the rights of counselors, minors and parents."
The Liberty Counsel, a legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty, has long been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Throughout the year, Muoio has made it known that banning conversion therapy on minors is one of her priorities.
"Conversion therapy reinforces the erroneous message that being gay, lesbian or transgender is something that is wrong and needs to be fixed," said Muoio. "We are going to prohibit this junk science and put an end to the harm it can cause LGBTQ youth."
Despite the petitions and the Liberty Counsel's veiled threat, City Commissioners unanimously voted to protect LGBT youth by banning conversion therapy.
"The discredited practice of conversion therapy has long been rejected by virtually all of our nation's mainstream medical and mental health organizations" said PBCHRC President and Founder Rand Hoch. "We are grateful that Mayor Muoio and the city commissioners have enacted a law to protect LGBTQ youth from these unethical practices."
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 Commission to ensure that the children of West 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."
In addition, conversion therapy has been soundly 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.
Last May, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a comprehensive report entitled "Quacks: 'Conversion Therapists,' the Anti-LGBT Right, and the Demonization of Homosexuality". (www.splcenter.org/20160525/
Around the nation, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Cincinnati and Seattle have all banned conversion therapy. In Florida, West Palm Beach now joins Miami, Miami Beach, Wilton Manors and Bay Harbor Islands in enacting laws to prevent licensed mental health providers from offering conversion therapy to minors. Two other Florida municipalities - North Bay Village and El Portal - are considering enacting similar bans before year's end.
The West Palm Beach ban on conversion therapy - and all of the similar bans enacted to date - applies only to state-licensed therapists. Unlicensed therapists, such as those associated with faith-based groups, retain their religious freedom to engage in such work. Additionally, adults remain free to seek out conversion therapy.
Although there have been several court challenges to the constitutionality of banning conversion therapy, all have failed. On three occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear challenges to the constitutionality laws banning conversion therapy for minors.
U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act to empower the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on conversion therapy. Specifically, the law would make sexual orientation change efforts illegal under the Federal Trade Commission Act, and classify advertising these services or providing them in exchange for monetary compensation as fraudulent, unfair, and deceptive. The bill would also explicitly clarify that the Federal Trade Commission has the duty to enforce this provision and would further provide state attorneys general the authority to enforce it in federal court.
In addition, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign (a Washington, DC-based LGBTQ rights organization which is not affiliated with PBCHRC) filed a federal consumer fraud complaint with the Federal Trade Commission seeking to ban conversion therapy nationwide.
During the 2016 legislative session, State Senator Jeff Clemens (D-Atlantis) introduced a bill to prohibit conversion therapy statewide (S. 258). However, the Senate refused to take action on the bill.
"When it comes to protecting LGBTQ people - especially children - the city of West Palm Beach is not just going to wait for the state or the federal government to take action," said Muoio. "