AUGUSTA — For the second year in a row, House lawmakers voted to ban state-licensed counselors from engaging in “conversion therapy” to attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors in Maine.

Wednesday’s vote was 91-46, with five Republicans and five independents joining 81 Democrats to support the bill. The measure, which was the subject of an emotional public hearing last month, is now headed to the Senate for consideration.

A similar bill passed both the House and Senate last year only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Paul LePage. But bill advocates are more confident that Maine will join the 16 states prohibiting conversion therapy this year thanks to stronger Democratic majorities in both chambers and support from Gov. Janet Mills.

“Conversion therapy is not addressing a problem. It is engaging in coercion,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, a licensed clinical social worker. “And in that respect, we need to stand today and have a law in the state to say that that type of ‘therapy’ is no longer permissible. We have an obligation to protect our young people from interventions that are harmful, and equally important, that have proven to be ineffective.”

Opponents, however, said there is no evidence that harmful conversion therapy techniques are being used in Maine. They also warned that the bill’s language would infringe on parental rights and free speech while potentially interfering with professional counselors’ ability to work with juveniles.

“Now we are telling parents you have to be very careful about how you address your own children, if they come to you confused about their own sexuality,” said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter. “We are telling professionals you have to be very careful about how you address this issue with children who come to you with questions about their sexuality.”

The bill, L.D. 1025, defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks or claims to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including, but not limited to, any effort to change gender expression or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions, feelings or behavior toward others based on the individual’s gender.”

Critics contend such therapies merely compound feelings of shame and self-doubt, sometimes with devastating consequences for a young person’s emotional health or physical well-being. The American Psychiatric Association called conversion therapy “harmful and discriminatory” and the practice has been discredited by the American Medical Association as well as the American Psychological Association.

Organizations representing the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning) communities have had considerable success enacting bans on conversion therapy practices nationwide. Last month, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a similar bill into law, making Maine the sole outlier among its New England neighbors.

The ban proposed under L.D. 1025 would apply to state-licensed counselors, psychologists, social workers, doctors and other health professionals, guidance counselors, pastoral counselors and marriage/family therapists.

It would not prohibit treatment for individuals undergoing gender transition, counseling that seeks to prevent unsafe sexual practices or any “neutral” talk therapy intended to help a minor cope with issues.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, said conversion therapy “preys on young people in some of their most vulnerable moments” amid fears of being disowned by families or shunned by friends. McLean, who came out as gay when he was a senior in high school, said being gay “cannot be prayed away, can’t be wished away.”

“Conversion therapy is, in fact, no therapy at all,” McLean said. “It is not a treatment. It is a debunked theory that finds its home in shame, hatred of one’s self, and a perpetuation of stigma and stereotypes about being LGBT.”

Republican members of the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee backed a different version of the bill that would ban using punishment, aversive practices or other unpleasant stimuli to attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation. The House voted 91-45 to reject that narrower definition of conversion therapy.

Several opponents suggested the Democrat-sponsored version would prohibit parents from seeking help for a child struggling with their sexuality. Others said it could prevent counselors from even discussing issues out of fear of losing their professional licenses.

“To mandate that people lose their livelihoods, the right to support themselves and their families because they cannot in good conscience comply with this mandate is antithetical to our Constitution and to the principles that have made the United States the special place that it is,” said Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro.

While no Democrats opposed the bill, five Republicans parted with the vast majority of their party to support the measure.

Independent Rep. Norman Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft told his House colleagues that he voted against the bill last year. But Higgins changed his position after having heart-felt conversations with his granddaughter.

“I don’t think she was confused at all,” Higgins said. “I think she is very clear about where she is today. And I have to tell you, I don’t think she needs treatment. I don’t think she needs to be fixed. I don’t think there is anything wrong with her. In fact, she’s a wonderful young woman.”

Democrats hold a seven-seat majority in the Maine Senate. Mills, a Democrat, has called for banning conversion therapy.

 

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