AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard emotional testimony Wednesday on a bill that would ban state-licensed counselors from using “conversion therapy” to try to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of juveniles in Maine.

The bill’s supporters hope for better results this legislative session, one year after Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a similar measure. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills supports a ban on “conversion therapy” and Democrats, who strongly backed last year’s version, hold the majority of seats in both chambers of the Legislature.

“If L.D. 1025 is not passed then you are emboldening and supporting the unjust violence brought against the LGBTQ community, amplifying the derogatory language used against us,” Nels Faul, an 18-year-old Kennebunk High School student, told members of the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee. “Most of all, you are validating the idea that if you are not straight or cisgender, then there is something wrong with you.”

The bill, L.D. 1025, would prohibit state-licensed counselors, therapists, psychologists, social workers and other professionals in those fields from advertising, offering or administering conversion therapy to individuals under age 18. Individuals who violate the prohibition could lose their license to practice in the state.

The bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks or purports to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity” including any attempts to reduce a person’s romantic or sexual attraction to individuals of the same gender.

Supporters contend the bill is necessary to end a “fringe” practice that they argue can actually harm rather than help people by causing additional feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt. More than a dozen other states have laws on the books prohibiting such therapies.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, recounted how he was driven into a deep depression with suicidal thoughts by a trusted adviser’s recommendation that he seek “reparative therapy” because he was gay. While Fecteau said he was fortunate to have supportive friends and family, he knows other young people could be more vulnerable to harm from what he said is a “widely condemned practice.”

“I want to protect them from the harm that would come from a respected professional telling them, one way or another, that they are broken, that the core truth of who they are is wrong and even disgusting,” said Fecteau, who serves as the assistant House majority leader. “Without a doubt, there are children whose lives will be taken from us at the very suggestion of needing to be fixed, changed or ‘healed’ from their innate selves.”

Organizations supporting a ban on conversion therapy included the Maine Medical Association, Maine Nurse Practitioner Association, Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Maine Council of Churches, Equality Maine and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“It is our responsibility to protect the health and well-being of Maine kids rather than tell them they are something to be ‘fixed,’ ” said Sara Gagne-Holmes, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “Our children do not need to be repaired. They need supportive environments that respect who they are as individuals and allow them to thrive in all aspects of their lives.”

Most opponents who testified Wednesday raised concerns that a prohibition would infringe on parents’ rights, violate individuals’ free speech and interfere with religious liberty. Several individuals testified about how their own religious experiences prompted them to change their sexuality.

Bill opponents also suggested the bill could lead to false accusations against counselors and prohibit therapists for working with young clients who are seeking help.

Joy Emmons, a certified counselor from Belgrade who is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors, said young adults are often “juggling these male-female attitudes back and forth until they understand who they are,” often when the brain full develops after age 20.

“Gender identity is only one thing young people are very confused about today,” Emmons said. “Surgery is final and needs to wait. Their brains are not completely developed and therefore they should not be encouraged to make radical decisions that can’t be changed.”

Penny Morrell, Maine state director for Concerned Women for America, said the bill would make it illegal for a counselor to “present the fact that (clients) were born a boy or a girl but must accept the childlike concept that they can be who they want to be despite medical or scientific facts.”

“No counselor should be punished for providing help to accomplish a patient’s goal,” Morrell said.

The committee will hold a work session and vote on the bill on a future date.

 

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