Every June, as Pride Month rolls around again, many of us take this time as a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come in this country with LGBTQ+ rights. But we also need to take stock of how far we still need to go. One area in which progress is needed is in creating state and national policy that protects teens and kids from the harmful practice of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy, also known as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), is a form of therapy that attempts to change a person’s sexual or gender presentation from homosexual or transgender to a heterosexual or cisgender expression. Over 700,000 Americans have been subjected to conversion therapy; 350,000 of these individuals have been minors.

Conversion therapy has harmed children for decades, as it is based on the stereotype that queerness is a disorder that can be treated. It is a harmful practice that should be criminally banned on a both a state and federal level. Individuals who experience conversion therapy when a minor are five times more likely to attempt suicide, have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and overall have low feelings of self-worth.

Typically, children and teens are not willingly signing up for conversion therapy but are coerced into it by parents and other adults. Research shows there is no evidence to suggest that a queer person can stop having homosexual desires and start having heterosexual desires. Thus, if it is not possible to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight, conversion therapy is wholly ineffective in reaching this goal. Due to the lack of support from their family, queer children forced into conversion therapy often end up with lower incomes, less formal education, and low life satisfaction. It seems that in many corners of this country, we have decided that it is okay to subject children to “therapeutic” practices that cause them to become suicidal and depressed, ending up with worse employment and educational life outcomes.

While it might be tempting to think that most religious leaders support the practice of conversion therapy, this is not the case. Many progressive Christian pastors and churches acknowledge that conversion therapy on minors is a form of abuse and should be banned. One survey found that when it comes to minors, most Americans — 55.6% — support banning conversion therapy. Currently, 20 states, including Maine, have civil bans curbing the ability of licensed professionals to preform conversion therapy, meaning that if licensed therapists are found practicing conversion therapy on a minor they can be subject to a monetary fine.

Civil bans, however, have their limitations. For example, a minor can still be forced to attend conversation therapy sessions with a practitioner during the time the practitioner is being investigated, and even if the practitioner is found liable, this does not necessarily stop or prevent ongoing conversion therapy. The monetary fine associated with a civil ban is not enough of a deterrent to therapists who are determined to engage in this practice.

What is needed is a criminal ban on the practice of conversation therapy with minors: a law prohibiting practitioners from engaging in conversion therapy practices, where perpetrators found guilty of engaging in the practice could face prison time, probation, and a tarnished criminal record. The threat of incarceration and the stigma of a criminal charge would be a better deterrent then the civil ban. Canada recently passed a bill that criminally bans conversion therapy; it is entirely possible to enact similar legislation in Maine and at the federal level in the U.S.

We want to encourage citizens to take time this Pride Month to call attention to the ongoing harmful practice of conversion therapy and to advocate for the enactment of state and federal criminal bans on the practice. A policy change enacting a criminal ban on conversion therapy is within reach. Queer children should not have to worry about being sent to conversion therapy when coming out to their parents or caregivers. Thus, we urge you to write to your state and federal representatives, urging them to ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors, not just civilly, but criminally.

Hannah Goldstein is a psychology major at the University of Southern Maine. Kristen Gleason, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Southern Maine and is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the KJ monthly.

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