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Advocates speak in favor of banning gay conversion therapy in Erie County

Mathew Shurka's parents spent $30,000 in a failed effort to turn him from gay to straight.

"The entire industry is an underground practice," he said.

Shurka was one of nine speakers who attended a hearing before the Erie County Legislature Thursday, to urge legislators to support a proposed local law that would make gay conversion therapy programs illegal.

With the hearing over, the proposed law could be up for a Legislature vote next week and receive bipartisan support, after languishing for years.

The legislation, sponsored by Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, 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.

"Every mental health organization in the country disapproves of conversion therapy," said Shurka, 29, a New York City resident who travels the country to lobby for efforts to ban gay conversion therapy as part of the #BornPerfect campaign.

Local gay rights advocates and supporters described programs designed to turn gay teens straight as programs that engage in mental and spiritual child abuse, promote self-hatred and place LGBT teens at high risk for suicide.

No one spoke against the proposed law at the hearing Thursday. Advocates of the law pointed out the law would not prevent religious leaders from espousing their beliefs.

Conversion therapy has been banned in nine states and 31 cities and towns, Shurka said. The New York City Council approved a gay conversion therapy ban, which is currently awaiting the mayor's signature. Nassau County is deliberating a law.

No licensed conversion therapy organizations exist in Erie County. But activists in the LGBT community believe informal efforts exist locally, disguised as day camps, religious counseling or life coaching. They are legal in New York State, despite being discredited by medical and mental health associations.

Cheektowaga resident Bojidar Kandar, 30, a medical researcher, told legislators he was forced to undergo a year of conversion therapy through what was called a Christian counseling service while in his senior year at Amherst High School. He accused such programs of selling "snake oil and poison" to parents and children.

"There's nobody who wins here when we allow this," Kandar said.

Advocates urge Erie County to ban gay conversion therapy for minors

Burke's law has been repeatedly introduced to the County Legislature during the past four years.

In 2014 and 2015, he introduced resolutions – that died in committee – urging the state to ban the practice. In 2016, he proposed a local law to ban the practice in Erie County.

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. In March, Burke renamed the bill as the Erie County Conversion Therapy Ban.

Despite a committee discussion, the Republican-controlled majority at the time didn't allow the law to receive a public hearing.

Burke said he expects the law to come to the Legislature floor next week, after review by the county attorney.

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