LANSING, Mich. — When Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow talks to constituents about Senate Bill 367, which she authored, people are surprised; surprised to find out that conversion therapy, the practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual or gender orientation, is still legal and still happening in the state.
“Most people are shocked this is still legal,” she said, speaking to FOX17 from her Lansing office. “This is not therapy. It’s not backed by science, it’s not real and not only is it not real, it’s incredibly harmful.”
In fact, nearly every major health group in the U.S. and scores of clinical professionals have dismissed the practice as legitimate. Likewise, 18 states and the District of Columbia have taken legislative action to ban or limit the practice of conversion therapy, also commonly called sexual orientation or gender identity change efforts.
SB367 would strip licenses from Michigan therapists, counselors and mental health professionals who practice conversion therapy on minors in a clinical setting.
Several communities in Michigan have taken steps to ban conversion therapy at the municipal level – places like Ferndale, Berkley and Royal Oak – and last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that would cut state funding to counselors who practice it. But the ban hasn’t been codified into law. The executive order also risks being overturned by another administration.
One of the reasons Sen. McMorrow thinks the bill has been stuck in the Senate’s Healthy Policy and Human Services Committee is the close association conversion therapy has to religious groups. To avoid an infringement of state on church, McMorrow and the bills co-sponsors purposely made the scope of the bill narrow to apply only to clinical settings and licensed professionals.
“People see this as infringing on their rights. What they don’t understand is that the language in the bill is very clear,” said Gary Harper, PhD, MPH, who also teaches at U of M whose studied the effects of conversion therapy at length. “It only affects licensed mental health professionals in the state of Michigan.”
Unfortunately though, Harper says the most brutal conversion therapy often happens outside clinical settings at places that don’t always advertise the service for what it is. Some carry it out under the guise of social or religious counseling or even summer camps.
Harper says many of the methods are far from scientific and border on abuse or even torture.
“They put a rubber band around their wrist and then every time they have a thought about same-sex attraction or behavior they’re asked to pull the rubber band. That’s at the mildest level,” he said. “At the most extreme level is really using electrodes, so connecting electrodes to different parts of the body.”
Another common conversion therapy practice requires individuals to stand still while a backpack is filled with rocks. Harper says many of the youth he’s counseled coming out of conversion therapy bear physical and mental scars. The LGBTQ+ community already has higher rates of suicide than their straight counterparts.
“The effects of conversion therapy are long-term,” he said. “They’re damaging. People commit suicide, people have chronic depression, people have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
According to a study Harper points to by the William’s Institute at UCLA, about 698,000 LGBTQ+ kids and adults in the U.S. have been subject to conversion therapy in their lifetime - about 25,000 members of Michigan's LGB community. When you add in the transgender community, the number jumps to 33,570.
Despite near-consensus in the mental health community and high public support for banning conversion therapy, Sen. McMorrow’s bill hasn’t even cleared the Senate’s committee on Health Policy and Human Services and previous iterations of the ban haven’t made it far either. To Harper, the resistance is baffling.
“If we had a pill that had 0% efficacy and had a 50% chance of causing suicide, do you think we would continue to allow that to be used?” he said. “No! Of course not. It’s not even a grey area, the data are very consistent, are very clear.”
If you are experiencing mental health issues as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, view the following resources:
If you’ve experienced conversion therapy and want to share your story, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (616)-364-8722.