Bethlehem is lucky number eight.
Earlier this month the Lehigh Valley city became the eighth municipality in Pennsylvania to ban conversion therapy from being practiced on LGBTQ youth. On July 3, the proposal — known as the Appropriate Mental Health Services Ordinance — passed the Bethlehem City Council by a unanimous 7-to-0 vote.
Backed by city councilmembers Bryan Callahan and Shawn Martell, the statute defines conversion therapy as “treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or to reduce or eliminate sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”
If counselors or medical professionals contravene the ban, they could face loss of licensure. Complaints against filed conversion therapists will be adjudicated by a five-person appeals board comprising of a city councilperson, the city’s health director, a licensed mental health worker.
Although there are no reports of conversion therapy being practiced in the Eastern Pennsylvania town of just over 75,000 people, Bethlehem City Council claimed in the statute that the local government “has compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.”
Conversion therapy — sometimes referred to as reparative therapy or orientation change — has been condemned as harmful and ineffective by every leading U.S. medical group, including the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association.
City councilmembers called the practice “bizarre” and “ridiculous.
“As a teacher and an educator in the Bethlehem Area School District in the last 25 years, I’ve seen numerous kids that are struggling with their sexuality every day,” Callahan told the local news station WFMZ-TV.
“I think it’s a commentary on America in 2018 that we even need to be here to do things like this,” added Councilman William Reynolds following the ordinance’s passage. “It’s a ridiculous idea, and it’s ridiculous to think that people would think this is necessary or something that needs to be done.”
“One thing the last couple of years has taught us is that because there are things that are ridiculous doesn’t mean they’re aren’t people trying to do them,” he claimed.
The ordinance’s passage was backed by a litany of community groups and service organizations in Eastern Pennsylvania, including the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBTQ Community Center, KidsPeace Hospital, Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley, and Valley Youth House.
Valley Youth House noted the harms of conversion therapy in a letter from President and CEO Thomas R. Harrington supporting the ban.
“LGBTQ youth rejected by their parents or caregivers were more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide, nearly six time more likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times more likely to use illegal drugs than those youth who were not rejected,” Harrington claimed.
The statute was patterned after a similar ordinance which passed in neighboring Allentown last year.
In outlawing conversion therapy, Bethlehem follows at least six other municipalities in the state: Doylestown, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, State College, and Yardley Borough.
Across the U.S., more than 30 cities and 13 states have passed statutes or statewide laws restricting orientation change efforts. These states include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
LGBTQ advocates lauded Bethlehem for joining the growing list of municipalities which have taken action to protect queer and trans youth.
“No child should be put through the dangerous and inhumane practice of conversion therapy which doesn’t work and is tantamount to child abuse,” said Human Rights Campaign Pennsylvania State Director Allison Van Kuiken in a statement.
“Bethlehem City Council’s unanimous support for an end to conversion therapy in their city is an important victory for LGBTQ youth and a clear reminder that the LGBTQ community deserves high-quality health care, not discredited junk science,” added Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.
Conversion therapy remains legal at the statewide level. Openly gay state representative Brian Sims introduced a bill to prohibit orientation change efforts last year, but it has stalled in Pennsylvania’s majority conservative legislature.