Backstory: How Equal Rights Washington Worked to Get Conversion Therapy Banned

Backstory: How Equal Rights Washington Worked to Get Conversion Therapy Banned

- in Politics, Local

By Niva Ashkenazi

Two months after Equal Rights Washington secured the passage of statewide marriage equality for LGBTQ couples in November of 2012, they were already asking, “what’s next?”

The answer? Get conversion therapy on LGBTQ minors banned in Washington state.

ERW is an advocacy and outreach organization for Washington state’s LGBTQ community. It was founded back in 2004, initially to work on passing a state LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill.

Monisha Harrell, chair of ERW, joined the team during their marriage equality campaign. She then took over as board chair in December of 2012, right before ERW took on the conversion therapy ban in early 2013.

It was not an easy effort, she said. It took five years to finally pass the ban (SB 5722) on March 3, 2018.

“We thought at that point in time, this should be a no-brainer,” Harrell said. “Everybody wants to protect our kids. This should be one of those things that is really easy to do.”

Senator Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) – then a representative – participated in the early process of drafting the bill. The legislative labor was overall quite simple: add the practice of conversion therapy on a patient under the age of 18 to the list of activities that are considered “unprofessional conduct” under the Uniform Disciplinary Act, which regulates the procedures of health care practitioners.

While the bill went through its first round of testimony in the House of Representatives Health Care and Wellness Committee, ERW brought in voices from the outside to provide input; from psychologists and mental health practitioners, to individuals who have gone through conversion therapy themselves.

The bill was successful at first. When the Washington state House of Representatives first voted on it in 2014, it passed with 94 votes in favor, and only four in opposition.

“I thought ‘slam dunk, we are home, this is happening,’” Harrell said.

As an outsider in the state capitol, Harrell said she quickly learned how easy it is for a bill to die without proper support in the right places. Though it passed smoothly through the house in its first year, the Republican-controlled state Senate was quick to drop the bill.

Nearly two years later, the bill’s prospects for success became even less promising when Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio, took her own life in late December of 2014. In her suicide note, Alcorn attributed her suicidal thoughts to the conversion therapy that her parents forced her through, which led President Barack Obama to condemn the practice at the time.

“Fighting for our kids’ safety and well-being became a partisan issue,” Harrell said.

The next time the conversion therapy ban bill came up for a vote on the floor of the state House of Representatives, it lost around 30 votes from the previous year.

“That took on a whole different spin for this work,” Harrell said. “We were no longer talking about the data, the facts, and the evidence. We started getting into this mud of party politics, which we never wanted this to become.”

The new standard for debate at this point in time went against ERW’s fundamental values. According to Harrell, ERW is a nonpartisan organization. For the conversion therapy ban bill, they reached out to any legislators, regardless of their party affiliation who would be willing to talk about the issues that they want to promote.

“We just wouldn’t hear back from Republican legislators,” Harrell said. “We knew the pathway forward would be extremely difficult when there’s a party that predominantly wouldn’t speak with us.”

That’s where Carey Morris came in. As a contract lobbyist, her job throughout this whole effort was to keep the bill alive. When Republican legislators expressed opposition for the conversion therapy ban, she showed up at their office doors.

“I would just keep going back saying ‘I’m here! Let’s talk,’ and we just kept having those conversations,” Morris said. “I would offer information, concrete examples, and put a face on this issue by sharing the stories of individuals.”

These debates did not just involve party politics. Many of the disagreements that came up involved fundamental misunderstandings of what conversion therapy was, and what effect the ban would have on citizens.

“All medical organizations have condemned conversion therapy. But lawmakers don’t necessarily understand the nuances of that,” Liias said. “So the supporters of conversion therapy would take advantage of that and make it sound like the bill is going to limit access to mental health services.”

Many of these interactions were frustrating, no doubt. But some of them actually managed to change the minds of some Republican legislators, which proved to be crucial for the bill’s success later on.

“It wasn’t all one party or the other that got us this win,” Harrell said. “It was really working with people from both sides of the aisle to understand the importance of protecting our young people.”

By taking the time to talk to state Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-Chehalis), Morris was able to convince DeBolt – once a staunch opponent of banning conversion therapy – to support the ban instead. Eventually, DeBolt became the sponsor  of the bill in the Republican caucus, working alongside Liias to keep the bill alive.

“To see someone listen to the voice of the victims, talk to the real people who have suffered from these practices,and then completely change their approach was really powerful,” Liias said. “And it taught me that on LGBTQ issues, we still have work to do to change hearts and minds.”

SB 5722 still failed to pass until the Democrats seized control of the state Senate in November of 2017. At that point, it only took four months for the Senate to pass the bill in early March, and for Governor Jay Inslee to sign it into law on March 28.

“It wasn’t all one party or the other that got us this win, it was really working with people from both sides of the aisle to understand the importance of protecting our young people,” Harrell said. “We truly work very hard to make LGBTQ rights something that won’t be divided on party lines, because party power is cyclical, and we want these wins to be permanent.”

This was a big win for ERW, but the work doesn’t stop here. During next year’s legislative session, ERW hopes to pursue a ban on the use of “gay / transgender panic” as legal defences for violence, and to introduce consent to sex education in schools.

With two projects lined up for next year, they’ve once again already answered the question, “what’s next?”

Watch: Monisha Harrell of Equal Rights WA talks about the WA state gay conversion therapy ban.



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