East Lansing bans gay therapy amid debate over legality

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East Lansing became just the second city in Michigan this month to ban gay conversion therapy for minors, but the Council was surprisingly divided, 3 to 2, cutting along unexpected lines.

Councilwoman Ruth Beier, who is a lesbian, joined Council Member Erik Altmann in voting against the measure: “I voted no because we can't enforce an ordinance that tries to regulate what a therapist says,” Beier said. “I proposed a resolution condemning conversion therapy instead.”

Council Member Aaron Stephens, who introduced the measure, said a statement was not enough. “Added protections for LGBTQIA youth needed to be in place. This therapy has longstanding negative effects. The state is not acting to have this stopped.”

Conversion therapy is a pseudoscientific mental health treatment, often with a religious design, that claims to promise LGBTQ people that they can change their orientation or gender identity to straight or cisgender. As early as 1998, the American Psychological Association came out against the practice, arguing not only that it does not work, it is psychologically harmful and unnecessary.

East Lansing’s action comes at the same time when New York City is considering repealing its very restrictive conversion therapy ban, encompassing adults as well as minors. It is an effort led by its gay Council speaker, Corey Johnson.

New York has been sued by the conservative Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom, which argues that the city was infringing on the First Amendment. Johnson chose to back a repeal both to end the lawsuit and to prevent a conservative court ruling striking down other conversion therapy bans. New York City children will still be covered by a state law protecting minors from the therapy.

Since 2013, there have been 18 states that have banned the practice, along with dozens of municipalities across the country. In the Midwest, Illinois is the sole state to ban the practice Midwest, but several cities in Ohio and Wisconsin have enacted local bans.

Most states have enforced bans by tasking state health professional licensing boards with investigating and pulling a license of anyone caught pushing the discredited practice.

The ACLU of Michigan has supported repeated bills in the Michigan Legislature, but the bills have failed to attract a Republican sponsor or get a hearing in the Republican-dominated body.

“It’s been discredited. It’s harmful,” said Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Project. But Kaplan said the civil liberties group had not taken a position on local ordinances and preferred state licensing boards be the ones to enforce a ban.

The small Oakland County suburb of Huntington Woods became the first Michigan city to impose a local ban earlier this year, inspiring East Lansing’s new law, said Stephens.

“That’s when I realized we could as a city ban it,” Stephens said.

Stephens said he had not heard of anyone practicing conversion therapy within the East Lansing city limits, but an LGBTQ pastor testified that there are a significant number of people in the community who have been harmed by it elsewhere. “She gets a call from someone once a month who’s dealt with the effects of this.”

Altmann said he felt blindsided by the ordinance, which he said came up suddenly with little debate. He called the ordinance unenforceable and possibly setting up the city for litigation. He said the proper place for a ban would either be the state or the county, which has a health department. East Lansing offers no health services. “They have the expertise, we don’t.”

“You could view any sham therapy as a public health issue,” he said, but also worried about balancing that with the First Amendment. “We don’t need to try to enforce this statute to get sued.”

East Lansing’s new ordinance tasks the Police Department with issuing a criminal misdemeanor complaint against any mental health professional for employing “any practice or treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity against their will.”

Altmann said he also worried about a chilling effect the ordinance would have on legitimate mental health therapy, particularly counseling that helped someone questioning their orientation or gender identity come to understanding. The ordinance, he said, could dissuade counselors from touching on those issues at all.

Stephens said that complaint was without merit and the ordinance was carefully crafted to ensure it only counts when used against a juvenile’s will. “This isn’t a free speech issue. This is medical malpractice,” he said. “This is a medical professional trying to impose a practice that has been debunked time and again.”

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