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Advocates urge Erie County to ban gay conversion therapy for minors

Carol Speser dated a young man in college for three years before they both realized they were homosexual and carried out a suicide pact.

The boyfriend died. Speser lived.

But for the next two years, she was subjected conversion therapy in a mental hospital, where therapists tried to turn her “straight.”

Now 68, Speser recalled enduring shock treatments, days of isolated confinement and heavy duty medication from well-meaning health professionals convinced they were doing the right thing.

Such conversion therapy treatments have long since been condemned in the medical community. But Speser and other local activists in the LGBT community believe conversion therapy efforts still exist locally. She says they have become more disguised, passed off as day camps and life counseling. No accountability exists for discredited conversion therapy treatments because it remains legal.

She was one of several speakers urging the Legislature to support a proposed local law by Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, to make conversion therapy illegal to practice on minors.

"Common sense tells me somewhere in Erie County, some poor teenager is being taken by his misguided parents to some misguided health care practitioner who believes she is doing the right thing to fix this teenager, to get the 'gay' or the 'trans' out of them," said Speser, a local pioneer and grassroots organizer in the gay community. "Now I urge you, save this kid. Ban this practice. You sanction it, you say it's OK if you let things be as they are."

No licensed conversion therapy centers exist in Erie County, but LGBT activists said they are aware of informal programs locally that encourage youth who believe they have a same-sex orientation into converting to a heterosexual orientation. Kitty Lambert-Rudd, president of the Western New York Anti-Violence Project, said she knows of seven.

Currently, anyone who practices such therapy locally cannot be held accountable because such therapy is not illegal, advocates said.

Video from Legislature Government Affairs Committee to discuss conversion therapy bill:

"Allowing young people to believe that there is something deeply wrong with them that should be fixed pierces the heart and breaks the spirit," Speser told legislators. "I urge you to pass this legislation to protect our youth in our backyard."

Conversion therapy is banned in five other states, but not New York. On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed California’s law banning the practice to stand. That 2012 law prevents licensed practitioners from offering programs that attempt to change a minor’s sexual orientation.

Burke's legislation would make the practice of conversion therapy on minors a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or one year in jail.

"It's an abusive practice," Burke said. "It should be illegal."

Homosexuality has not been considered a mental disorder by medical and psychiatric organizations for decades. Paul Morgan, organizer for Western New Yorkers Against Conversion Therapy, was among those pointing out that every major American medical, pediatric, psychological, and counseling organization has discredited conversion therapy as a technique to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.

Legislators were respectful and attentive of accounts from speakers who either were exposed to conversion therapy or had conversion therapy recommended to them. Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, commended them for their bravery.

Bryan Ball, an LGBT civil rights activist, recalled how one of his teachers in high school kept him after class out of concern.

"He told me I didn't need to worry," Ball said, "not because it didn't matter who I was, that I was gay, but because – and I quote in words that will always stay with me – 'There are good people and places where they can change people like you.' I searched the internet, and I discovered conversion therapy. I was terrified out of my mind."

Legislator Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga, said that while he didn't have a general problem with the law's concept, he was concerned that the brief, two-page proposal offers no exemptions for churches, pastors and priests. Some other conversion therapy laws offer this exemption.

Advocates of the proposed law responded later that no exemption exists because the law applies to minors, not adults. But many advocates recommended that the law should be amended to "licensed and non-licensed practitioners" to more clearly define the law's scope.

Burke's proposed law, which could receive bipartisan support, is still subject to a public hearing before it can proceed to a vote by the Erie County Legislature. A hearing has yet to be scheduled, but Burke is optimistic about the law's chances for approval.

"On this issue, I've had inquiries from more than one Republican legislator about how it would work," Burke said. "The fact that they want to talk about it is a good sign."

The anti-conversion therapy position is one that Burke has repeatedly introduced to the Legislature for the past three years. In 2014 and 2015, he introduced resolutions that died in committee urging the state to ban the practice. Last year, he proposed a local law to ban the practice. That proposal received national attention because he named it PENCE – Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Child Endangerment.

He chose PENCE because of Vice President Mike Pence's perceived position in support of federal funding for gay conversion therapy. Pence's 2000 Congressional campaign website stated: "Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior." More recently, however, Pence's press secretary has stated that Pence does not support conversion therapy.

While Burke's PENCE bill received tremendous public response, naming the proposed anti-conversion therapy law "PENCE" irritated members of the Republican-supported majority in the County Legislature, who refused to support it under that acronym. In March, Burke renamed the bill "Erie County Conversion Therapy Ban."

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