Brad Hoylman has been trying to pass a conversion therapy ban in New York for five years.
Shortly after he was elected in November 2012 to replace retiring lawmaker Tom Duane, the New York Senate’s only openly gay member introduced legislation outlawing the discredited practice, which seeks to “change” the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ minors.
When that bill was first introduced in 2013, just one state had banned conversion therapy: California. Thirteen other states have since joined the fray by passing their own legislation, but New York hasn’t.
Despite the New York State Legislature’s failure to take action against conversion therapy, many of Hoylman’s colleagues think it’s already illegal. In a phone interview with INTO, the Democrat explains that he frequently hears from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle that Gov. Andrew Cuomo “already taken a stand on the issue.”
Hoylman says any claims, however, that the state has banned conversion therapy are “simply not true.”
“The governor’s order restricts conversion therapy by banning public and private health care insurers from covering conversion therapy in the state, but it has not fully banned the practice,” the Senator states.
But if Cuomo’s order didn’t fully ban conversion therapy in the state of New York, where did Hoylman’s colleagues get the message that it was already outlawed?
One answer, the lawmaker claims, is in the headlines.
When INTO reported that Delaware passed statewide legislation outlawing conversion therapy in July, a number of news publications — including The Advocate, Metro Weekly, Newsmax, Towleroad, and USA Today — falsely claimed that the First State was the 15th to do so. That statement would only be true if the total included New York; otherwise, the current count is only 14.
This happens nearly every single time another state passes legislation outlawing conversion therapy.
Hoylman says any claims, however, that the state has banned conversion therapy are “simply not true.”
When Hawaii banned conversion therapy in April, Al-Jazeera Plus, Gay Star News, and On Top Mag, reported New York had already done the same. When Maine’s Paul LePage became the first governor to veto a bill outlawing the practice three months later, the Dallas Voice and Instinct magazine made the identical mistake.
In fact, this even happened when Cuomo signed the executive order partially restricting conversion therapy back in February 2016. Dazed and Truth Wins Out suggested the action amounted to a wholesale ban, despite its limited scope.
“New York has announced a ban on gay conversion therapy — the widely discredited practice which tries to ‘cure’ people of homosexuality,” read Dazed’s coverage of the order. “[…] Under the new rules, it will be illegal to provide conversion therapy to children under the age of 18, and Medicaid won’t be able to cover the costs of the ‘treatment.’”
That sounds like great news, but almost none of it is true.
Here’s what is real: Two years ago Cuomo became the first governor in the U.S. to sign an executive order limiting how conversion therapy can be practiced in the state. In addition to blocking insurance coverage for conversion treatments, the order also prevents medical practitioners from receiving reimbursements under New York’s Medicaid program.
Hoylman claims that action, while groundbreaking, was largely symbolic.
The order doesn’t have the force of law and could easily be reversed by future governors. Meanwhile, many mental health counselors don’t claim the treatment they’re providing is conversion therapy — a loosely defined set of practices ranging from shock treatment and aversion techniques to talk therapy.
“I don’t think that any practitioner who applied for Medicaid dollars for conversion therapy would ever be dumb enough to write that on the prescription,” Hoylman claims.
Mathew Shurka, who began seeing a reparative counselor in high school at the urging of his father, claims there was no code on the insurance form for conversion therapy. He spent five years attempting to “treat” his sexual orientation, a time during which he became depressed and suicidal.
“It could be happening every day that insurance companies are covering conversion therapy sessions,” Shurka says. “They don’t know. What Cuomo did was impactful but it needs to be followed up. It’s not enough.”
Much of the confusion, thus, comes down to a matter of nuance.
When the Human Rights Campaign released a statement in July after Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill banning conversion therapy, it claimed 15 states had passed “laws or regulations protecting youth” from gay cure treatments. These states include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.
While Shurka stresses that HRC’s information is entirely accurate, he claims news reporters aren’t are not always making a clear distinction between terms like “protection, legislation, and regulation” when they cite the advocacy group’s press releases.
“This language doesn’t always translate very well when a journalist wants to make a headline,” he says.
Let’s take this example from the Washington Blade. When LePage passed on outlawing conversion therapy earlier this year, the LGBTQ outlet claimed “other jurisdictions… have enacted similar measures,” including New York in its list.
News publications which cited the Blade’s reportage show how easy the phrasing is to misinterpret. Words like “measures” are vague enough that they appear virtually interchangeable with a comprehensive legislative ban, especially when New York is placed next to states which have fully outlawed conversion therapy.
Thus, when the queer website Georgia Voice aggregated the Blade’s coverage, it spotlighted the Empire State as an example of “progressive jurisdictions” where “conversion therapy bans have been passed.”
Outsiders may dismiss these distinctions as meaningless, but accuracy is critically important to Shurka’s work. As a coordinator with the Born Perfect campaign at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, he speaks to lawmakers across the country to advocate for legislation banning conversion therapy in each of the 50 states.
When New York legislators, leaders, and local community members falsely believe those laws have already passed, Shurka says they “don’t think it’s an issue.”
“Why it’s so important that New Yorkers think it’s an issue is that there are new conversion therapy centers in New York — out of all the states in the country,” he continues. “People think that conversion therapy is a Middle America issue when L.A. and New York City have the highest concentration of conversion therapy centers.”
Shurka knows firsthand. He grew up in the affluent Long Island suburb of Great Neck but went to a conversion therapist in Manhattan.
Fortunately, multiple municipalities in the Empire State have responded to the New York State Legislature’s continued inaction on conversion therapy by passing their own local ordinances. Over the past year, the counties of Albany, Erie, and Ulster have enacted codes protecting LGBTQ youth, while cities like New York City and Rochester have done the same.
When Erie County became the first local jurisdiction to move toward prohibiting conversion therapy in 2016, the original draft of the ordinance was named after Vice President Mike Pence — who critics say supported orientation change efforts during his 2000 run for Congress. He has denied the accusations.
Although Hoylman claims misreporting on New York’s growing number of conversion therapy laws is “maddening,” he says the problem highlights the wider struggles facing a state which has not passed any pro-LGBTQ bill in seven years.
In 2011, New York became the first state to pass a marriage equality bill through its legislature. Since then, not a single piece of legislation regarding queer or transgender rights has been heard on the Senate floor. Republican leadership in the State Legislature’s uppermost chambers have ignored proposals outlawing the gay panic defense, outlawing workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and ensuring data collection on LGBTQ lives.
“There is a blanket anti-LGBTQ sentiment among the Republican leadership,” Hoylman says. “They won’t consider bills on the floor or even in committee.”
Critics of Gov. Cuomo say the issue stems from his encouragement of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of New York Democrats who effectively handed the GOP majority control of the Senate by caucusing with them. That power-sharing agreement ended earlier this year after the incumbent brokered a deal following pressure from primary challenger Cynthia Nixon.
Shurka, though, notes that other states don’t face the level of conservative opposition to banning conversion therapy that New York does. Of the 14 bills which have been enacted into law, Republican governors were responsible for six of those signatures.
From conversations with lawmakers, Shurka claims the reticence to support pro-LGBTQ bills has as much to do with what he calls the “Albany superstition” as it does the IDC.
Four Senate Republicans voted for same-sex marriage in 2011: James Alesi, Mark Grisanti, Roy McDonald, and Stephen Saland. Each of the legislators who crossed party lines to support the freedom to marry were either voted out during their subsequent reelection campaign or declined to seek another term.
Subsequently, no members of New York’s Republican leadership in the Senate “want to be on record as voting for an LGBTQ bill,” Shurka claims.
“We don’t need to prove that conversion therapy is bad or that it’s happening in New York,” he says. “Everyone in Albany knows. Now it’s more that we need to build their confidence that they won’t lose their seats. That’s what this whole situation is about.”
Even though legislation on conversion therapy has yet to receive a full hearing in the Senate, advocates say the momentum is on their side. If a bill banning the practice were to make it to the floor, more legislators than ever before have told Shurka they would support that effort — giving him their “unofficial yeses.”
Hoylman says the time is long overdue for other lawmakers to join them.
“If we as adults cannot protect [children] from this practice, then we’ve failed ultimately in our responsibilities as public officials,” he claims. “The bill is so important because it sends a message to LGBTQ youth that we have your back.”
Note: The original version of this story misidentified the name of the New York lawmaking body as the “State Assembly.” It’s called the “New York State Legislature.” The post has been updated.