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Lawmakers Revive Attempt To Ban Conversion Therapy

Lawmakers in Springfield are renewing efforts to pass legislation that would ban the practice of sexual orientation conversion therapy for minors.

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, proposed the prohibition in January. Democratic Senators Daniel Biss, of Evanston, and Heather Steans, of Chicago, also filed a version of the measure in the upper chamber. The proposed legislation is House Bill 217 and Senate Bill 111. Similar legislation was defeated last year. “We are working with stakeholders with a pretty aggressive plan to get it passed this year,’’ Cassidy says.

The city of Washington, D.C., approved a ban in December. California and New Jersey also prohibit the therapy. Both states’ laws were challenged and upheld by a federal court.

Bernard Cherkasov

“Ultimately when a family seeks help from a mental health provider, I think they’re going to them with a belief that their treatment is going to be medically appropriate and scientifically based,” Cassidy says. But the practice has been condemned as “unscientific and in many cases barbaric.’’ The result of the therapy, she says, has produced “thoughts of suicide, cutting, self-harm. These are not practices that should come at the hands of someone who claims to be a mental health professional.”

It is unclear whether Illinois medical providers offer conversion therapy, but Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equity Illinois, says he believes some practitioners exist because his organization has heard from those who have come forward to “share their stories.”

“What we’re seeing in a number of cases is young people coming out at a younger age when they are still vulnerable,’’ he says. “There are families trying to come to terms with their child’s sexual identity or sexual orientation. The practitioners tell them they can redirect their thoughts and work on changing what is known to be innate and unchangeable sexual orientation.

“And what we’re seeing is that virtually every mental health association nationally and in Illinois has said that practice is not only ineffective, it’s actually harmful.

“Organizations opposed to the practice include the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric and Psychological associations.

The legislation would also ban referrals to unlicensed providers. “Because that’s what happens quite often. The original as we drafted it, and the original bills in New Jersey and California didn’t contemplate that,” says Cassidy. “We were the first to contemplate that, so that is what distinguishes this bill from the ones passed previously to make sure we’re capturing all of the ways families are duped into this practice.”

Opposition to the bill comes from such organizations as the Illinois Family Institute. 

Laurie Higgins, who describes herself as the cultural analyst of the Carol Stream-based group, says, “I think that 16-, 15-, 17-year-olds should be allowed to construct an identity that aligns with their religious beliefs, their personal values, and that may include clarifying why they are having same-sex attraction.

“All humans experience powerful persistent feelings that they choose not to affirm, and they choose not to act on for a variety of reasons. Why should that be the one feeling that the law prohibits counselors from helping people reject as a central part of their identity?”

But Cassidy, noting that Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey supported the ban, says, “This really is a bipartisan idea that’s based on protecting kids from bad science.”

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is the NPR Illinois News Editor and a lead editor of Illinois Issues' feature articles, working with freelance writers, and is curator of the Equity blog. Maureen joined the staff in 1998 as projects editor. Previously, she worked at three Illinois daily newspapers, most recently the suburban Chicago-based Daily Herald, where she served stints as an education reporter and copy editor. She graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's in journalism. She also has a master's degree in English from the University of Illinois at Springfield.