Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Where Does ‘Conversion Therapy’ Go Next?

Milwaukee County could pass its own ban. Evers calls Republican actions 'ridiculous.'

By - Jan 28th, 2023 11:33 am
The Progress Pride flag being carried in the 2022 Milwaukee Pride Parade. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Progress Pride flag being carried in the 2022 Milwaukee Pride Parade. Photo by Dave Reid.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Governor Tony Evers declared 2023 to be “The Year of Mental Health” in Wisconsin. Glancing toward the Republican members who dominate both branches of the legislature, he pointed out that mental health issues are a statewide concern and occur in every community. The former Superintendent of Public Instruction said lingering effects of the COVID crisis are being disproportionately felt by the state’s youth.

Yet even before the annual address, Republicans had led a successful attack on mental health — specifically the mental health of LGBTQ youth, who are to be found in every Senate and Assembly district. On Jan. 13, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, in its very first act of the 2023 session, lifted a statewide ban on the discredited practice of “Conversion Therapy” with a party-line 6-4 vote.

This means counselors, therapists and social workers who want to make a buck convincing a teenager that he or she is heterosexual, or is going to hell otherwise, shall be free to ply their trade, except in communities that have instituted their own prohibitions against the odious practice. The governor’s declaration should be a rallying cry for every community and county in the state to pass their own bans. And then, let’s see what the legislators have a “will” to cook up next.

Evers, when asked by Urban Milwaukee Thursday, had a single-word comment about the Republicans’ embrace of “Conversion Therapy.” He called it “ridiculous.”

What is “Conversion Therapy”?

“Conversion Therapy” seeks to change the sexual identity of individuals, mainly youth, who do not conform to the heterosexual norm. The American Psychological Society, the American Medical Association and others have condemned the practice, saying it endangers the mental health of those subjected to it.

According to Executive Order 122 prohibiting government funding for “Conversion Therapy”:

Conversion efforts contribute to higher risks of depression and suicide for LGBTQ youth who reported home-based and formal intervention with a therapist or religious leader; and were prospectively associated with less educational attainment and lower income.

The order goes on to cite authorities such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which states the practice “lack(s) scientific credibility and clinical utility.” The American College of Physicians says it leads to “depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.” The American Medical Association says it is based on an outdated belief that an individual should change or “repair” their orientation.

State Ban Has Complicated History

The statewide ban on “Conversion Therapy” originated in a 2020 ruling by the Department of Safety and Public Standards. This route was chosen due to the hopelessness of passing a ban in the :egislature. Republicans claimed the department overstepped its authority, and were able to rescind the ban, which had lapsed on Dec. 1. Sen. Kelda Roys, a Madison Democrat on the 10-member Administrative Rules Committee said after the vote, “It’s disappointing that the very first move the GOP is going to make this legislative session is to green-light abusive practices against children.”

Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, and committee member, was also dismayed by the action. He told Urban Milwaukee:

It’s pretty awful that … the first real action by the Republicans this year is to prevent these … bans from going into place. I would hope that there is a larger effort by leaders across the state to use local government to ban conversion torture in our state.

Banned in 14 Municipalities — and in One County

The first city to ban conversion therapy was Milwaukee, in March 2018 as the first piece of major legislation from then-freshman-alderman Cavalier Johnson. At least thirteen others have followed, including, in chronological order, Madison, Eau Claire, Cudahy, Shorewood, Racine, Glendale, Sheboygan, Superior, Appleton, Kenosha, Sun Prairie, Oshkosh, and, in June 2022, La Crosse.

In addition, and perhaps significantly, the Eau Claire County Board passed its own ban in September 2018, a month before the city enacted its own bar. That leaves us with just 71 counties to go.

Prospects for a Milwaukee County Ban

I contacted Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman M.D. for his thoughts on the possibility of enacting a Milwaukee County ban on the practice. Wasserman is a former State Representative and maintains an Obstetrics and Gynecology practice. He has delivered over 4,500 babies in his career.

Wasserman writes:

Thank you for contacting my district office regarding the issue of conversion “therapy” (quotation marks definitely needed, as there is absolutely nothing therapeutic about it). I understand your concerns and share in your belief that this harmful practice should be banned.

It has been shown again and again that conversion therapy is a form of psychological abuse. It has been discredited by numerous professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I would like to assure you that the Board of Supervisors is committed to promoting the health and well-being of all residents, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We firmly believe that everyone should be able to live and express their identities without fear of discrimination or harm.

I will talk with my colleagues to determine the best route forward, and I encourage you to continue reaching out to other Supervisors as well. I do believe there would be a majority in favor of banning this practice, but it never hurts to make your voice heard.

I also spoke Thursday with Supervisor Peter Burgelis, a gay member of the Milwaukee County Board. “When I decided to run for office I made a checklist of items I wanted to focus on. ‘Conversion Therapy’ was one of them,” he said, promising to introduce legislation to create a county-wide ban.

Where There’s a WILL…

I asked the six Republicans on the committee why they voted as they did. Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) issued this response:

“The examining board acted outside its legal authority in trying to implement a conversion therapy ban. The separation of powers is critical to our democracy, and the Legislature must act when an executive agency oversteps.”

This is a bit of verbal and legal gymnastics, since the alleged overstep was precipitated by the Legislature’s failure to deal with this issue forthrightly through legislation.

It is uncertain whether any public officials truly support “Conversion Therapy” as anything other than a political tool, which they wield to oppose anybody who is against it and to gin up the Christian Conservative fringe that is at the foundation of the Republicans’ base.

Enter The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a frequent litigant of right-wing causes. On Oct. 22, WILL filed suit in the United States District Court Western District of Wisconsin on behalf of Joy Buchman, LPC-IT, NCC, a licensed mental health professional and owner of Kinsman Redeemer Counseling Center in the City of La Crosse. According to the suit, her mission at Kinsman is:

healing the whole person by approaching mental health through a Christ centered lens.

According to the complaint:

1.) The City of La Crosse has determined that the best use of limited municipal resources is to wade into some of the most profound ontological, moral, and religious debates of our age—the meaning and proper ends of sex, gender, and sexual attraction—declare one side the “winner,” and investigate and punish those who dare to voice opposing views.

2.) La Crosse has enacted an ordinance that penalizes medical or mental health professionals if they express certain officially disfavored viewpoints relating to sexual orientation or gender identity when counseling their patients. These professionals have La Crosse’s approval, for example, to engage in counseling “that provides assistance to a person undergoing gender transition, or counseling that provides acceptance, support, and understanding of a person or facilitates a person’s coping, social support, and identity exploration and development,” but they may not engage in “efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions.

At no point does the WILL brief suggest that “Conversion Therapy” is effective. Nor does it attempt to rebut the hazards of the practice as outlined by the nation’s medical establishment.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article attributed Strobel’s statement to a spokesperson.

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