Carol Speser thought about John on Monday. He would have been so happy.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz on Monday signed a law making gay conversion therapy illegal. Speser, who stood behind Poloncarz at the signing, wished the young man she dated in college had survived to see this day. Instead, John died in a suicide pact that he and Speser made together, choosing death over living with the shame he felt of being homosexual.
"I feel a wave of sadness for him," said Speser, 69, who suffered through conversion therapy for two years after she survived her suicide attempt. "But you can only look forward. You have to focus on gratitude."
The new law forbids therapists from counseling LGBT minors in an effort to make them straight. The County Legislature unanimously approved the law last month.
The new law makes the practice of conversion therapy on minors a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or one year in jail.
"We must protect children from abuse, whether it is physical or mental, and that's what this law does," Poloncarz said.
Regardless of whether anyone in Erie County ever gets arrested on such grounds, Speser said, the new law makes a statement about what this community stands for.
"This law sets a standard for how we treatment people," she said.
Conversion therapy – premised on the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder – attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation into a heterosexual one.
Conversion therapy is legal in New York State. But it has been banned in nine other states, Washington, D.C., and 32 cities and towns, according to the national #BornPerfect campaign to ban the practice. The New York City Council approved a gay conversion therapy ban. Nassau County is deliberating a law.
A study released last month by the UCLA Williams Institute estimates some 77,000 more LGBT youth will be subjected to the practice from either a licensed health care professional or religious adviser – even though such programs have been discredited by every major health and mental health association in the country.
There are no certified conversion therapy programs in Erie County, but local advocates of the ban call it an underground practice that happens everywhere.
"This is clearly the right thing to do," said County Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who sponsored the law. "People practicing this, even if they're well intentioned, they're doing something really wrong. It feels really good to get this approved, settled and signed into law."
The suicide risk for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens is much higher for those who are subjected to conversion therapy, Shurka said. And even if the law leads to no prosecution of conversion therapy programs in Erie County, he said, it educates the public, makes a statement about the values of leaders in this community and could lead to a decline in the suicide rate locally.
Speser said that 40 years ago, she never would have dreamed she'd be living in a community that would one day make conversion therapy illegal. She still remembers asking a librarian for research material on homosexuality and being handed a big book of mental disorders that listed homosexuals with murderers and rapists.
She remembered it being a category for "heavy duty crazy."
National medical and psychiatric associations no longer consider homosexuality a mental disorder and have discredited conversion therapy as a practice.
The new law is yet another sign of how far the community has come, Speser said.
"This is personal," she said. "I'll sleep better tonight. I feel like a peace of my healing has been given back to me."
Nothing in this law prevents adults from seeking conversion therapies if they so desire. However, through my signing of this law today, our county further committed to protecting children from all forms of abuse. Thank you to all who made it possible. pic.twitter.com/70l1UHAchm
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) March 5, 2018