Why is New York’s ban on conversion therapy being repealed?

The New York City Council wants to reverse its ban on conversion therapy

Quick notes

  • In 2017, New York City outlawed “conversion therapy” —  the practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation through therapy or intervention

  • Conversion therapy has been widely discredited and is outlawed in many states and countries

  • A Christian legal organization sued the city over the ban, saying it goes against the First Amendment

In September 2019, the New York City Council took steps to reverse an almost-two-year-old ban on “conversion therapy.” The law, passed in December 2017, prohibited consumers from being charged for “services intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” punishable by a $1,000 fine for each incident. At the time, the ban was widely praised by human rights activists and politicians alike.

Now, the ban is in the process of being repealed. According to the New York Times, Corey Johnson, the speaker of the Council (who is openly gay and HIV positive) introduced the bill. In a statement released to Politico, he referred to proposed repeal as a “painful decision,” yet one that was necessary to neutralize a federal lawsuit filed against the city by a conservative Christian legal organization.

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is the practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender using therapy or intervention. The procedure can be dated back to the late 19th century, when German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenk-Notzing started using hypnosis (and a few trips to the brothel) to turn gay men straight. At the time, doctors and other medical professionals theorized that homosexuality was a psychological disorder that could be “fixed” with the right treatment.
[Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine]\[Creative Commons] via Wikipedia
Since then, it has long been understood that conversion therapy does not work — and, more importantly, it’s inhumane and cruel. Conversion therapy survivors have described undergoing psychological, emotional, and physical abuse, including electroshock therapy. A 2009 report from the American Psychological Association found that LGBTQ “individuals experienced harm” from the therapy and that they’d better benefit from “interventions that emphasize acceptance, support and recognition of important values and concerns.”

The NYC ban on conversion therapy

In 2018, New York City passed Local Law 22, making it illegal for any person to offer or provide “conversion therapy” for a fee. The city legislation was far broader than the bans passed in most other places — including a New York state law, which only bans the practice from being used on minors. Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, “We will ensure all individuals will be able to live without fear of coercion into change into someone they are not.”

Violators of the law faced serious repercussions: A $1,000 civil penalty for the first violation, $5,000 for the second violation, and $10,000 for each subsequent offense. It should be noted that the law did not apply to services which “provide assistance to persons undergoing gender transition or counseling that provides acceptance, support, and understanding of a person’s sexual orientation.” (Moral of the story: Use your powers for good, and you won’t get in trouble!)

Why it’s being repealed

In January 2019, an anti-LGBTQ hate group called Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, saying it violates free speech. The group, based out of Scottsdale, Arizona, says their mission is to advocate for “religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” The New York City Council fears that if the lawsuit challenging the ban were to reach the Conservative-controlled Supreme Court, the panel could issue a ruling that protected the practice.

“We will ensure all individuals will be able to live without fear of coercion into change into someone they are not.” Melissa Mark-Viverito

According to Politico, Councilman Johnson was approached by LGBTQ advocates who feared the possible repercussions of the lawsuit — and asked him to repeal the ban. “Obviously I didn’t want to repeal this. I don’t want to be someone who is giving in to these right-wing groups,” Mr. Johnson said, “But the Supreme Court has become conservative; the Second Circuit, which oversees New York, has become more conservative.” Luckily, those in the LGBTQ community will still have some protections.

Next steps

The city council would likely not be taking these steps if they didn’t feel that the LGBTQ community would still be safe. However, Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says that the New York state law will still protect minors from conversion therapy — and adults always have the option to sue therapy providers that they feel violated their rights.
Senator Brad Hoylman, an openly gay New York Democrat, said, “I’m heartened that the City Council pulled back a statute that could undermine efforts nationally to end conversion therapy because it might be viewed as overly broad.” For now, the community will have to be more strategic in their planning — but conversion therapy is still very much on the radar.

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