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New York County Unanimously Approves Conversion Therapy Ban. It Was Named After Mike Pence

A county in upstate New York has unanimously voted to prohibit any attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth.

On Thursday, Erie County moved one step closer to becoming the first municipality in the state to outlaw conversion therapy after all seven members of the Erie County Legislature voted to ban the practice. Any psychologist or medical professional purporting to “cure” queer or transgender minors will be slapped with a misdemeanor chargewhich could result in either a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

Although proponents of the bill claimed there were no conversion therapists operating openly in the upstate New York municipality, they argued the action is preventative.

“Simply put, this is a child protection measure,” Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, who sponsored the ordinance, told the local news station WIVB. “Referring to this practice as ‘therapy’ obscures the fact that it involves the abuse of children. Listening to the victims who have struggled with the aftermath of this often violent and debilitating practice is heartrending.”

“A young man in Texas sent me a letter explaining that he was considering suicide because he had experienced this and because it was destroying his life,” Burke added. “And the actions in this body, he said, gave him hope.”

During debate over the ordinance, survivors of conversion therapy attested to its deleterious effects.

Mathew Shurka, who came out to his parents at 16, spent five years in an orientation change program in Manhattan. As part of his treatment, he was cut off from his mother and sister. His therapist gave him Viagra to help him perform in the bedroom with women. Shurka claims he became depressed and suicidal as a result of being forced to be someone he’s not.

Now 29, the conversion therapy survivor visits state legislatures, county commissions, and city councils to ensure that other young people aren’t forced to experience what he went through.

“When public leaders take a stand, it makes a difference,” Shurka told Erie County last week.

The conversion therapy ban has yet to become law, but County Executive Mark Poloncarz is expected to sign the ordinance. LGBTQ advocates cheered its probable passage.

“We are thrilled Erie County, New York has taken this important step to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy,” says National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) Youth Policy Counsel Carolyn Reyes in a statement shared with INTO.

“Attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity through conversion therapy are not only ineffective but increase the likelihood of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide,” continues Reyes, who also serves as campaign coordinator for the Born Perfect. “There’s a reason every major medical organization has denounced this practice.”

“We have to take a moment and truly celebrate the work being done by elected officials across the country to protect LGBTQ youth from the harms of conversion therapy,” states Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project, in a statement shared with INTO.

“This brings the number of successful local ordinances to over thirty, similar to the number of states with legislation passed or submitted as of this moment.

“This movement will save the lives of thousands of LGBTQ young lives,” he adds.

To date, conversion therapy has been banned in nine statesincluding California, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Vermontand several bills to ban the practice have already been put forward in state legislatures this year.

Before his ordinance received overwhelming support in the Erie County Legislature last week, Burke had put forward similar proposals three times: in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The most recent effort attracted national attention two years ago when it was named the “Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Child Endangerment (PENCE) Act,” in honor of Vice President Mike Pence.

The former Indiana governor is often criticized as an alleged supporter of orientation change, which have been rebuked by the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association.

During his 2000 run for Congress, Pence’s campaign website advocated that funding for the Ryan White Care Acta program which provides life-saving care to those with HIVbe diverted to programs “which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” He has denied the phrase is a reference to conversion therapy.

Burke, however, changed the name of the ordinance to the Erie County Conversion Therapy Ban prior to the vote in the legislature.

Although advocates believe the widespread support for the ordinance will lead to similar prohibitions in neighboring countries, they see Albany as the true goal. The New York City Council moved to ban conversion therapy in December, but the state has yet to pass a law condemning the anti-LGBTQ treatment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order intended to prevent orientation change efforts two years ago, but legislative action stalled in the state assembly in 2017.

In a brief statement provided to INTO, Shurka calls the Erie County ordinance a “huge step for Albany to consider.” Reyes agrees that it’s time for state lawmakers to take “similar steps to protect all of New York’s young people.”

The bill’s sponsor, however, hopes all of America is listening.

“It’s not just for people here,” Burke said earlier this week. “It’s for the broader community, for people throughout the state and throughout the country.”


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.