Resolutions and flags aren’t enough, LGBTQ advocates want laws

Resolutions and flags aren’t enough, LGBTQ advocates want laws
An LGBT Pride flag waves alongside the American flag at Brown's Island in Richmond. (Source: Capital News Service)

RICHMOND – Adam Trimmer attended several of the Pride week events leading to Saturday’s Pride festival on Brown’s Island.

The road to the LGBTQ community has been difficult for 30-year-old Trimmer. He considers himself a survivor of conversion therapy - a practice that uses physical or psychological tactics in an effort to change a person’s sexuality. Trimmer’s pastor recommended he start conversion therapy after a suicide attempt in college. Now Trimmer is the Virginia ambassador for Born Perfect, a campaign that seeks to end the practice.

“When you grow up being told that you’re going to hell, that is not something that you want, and I think that is why conversion therapy is so prevalent, especially in the South,” Trimmer said. “All we really want is to not feel ashamed of ourselves.”

Though Pride flags were raised this week by the city mayor, whose resolution banning conversion therapy recently passed Richmond City Council, and three state regulatory boards have offered guidance to ban the practice, the LGBTQ community wants more.

They want legislators to pass a law banning the practice.

A resolution like Mayor Levar Stoney’s is nonbinding and will not become a statewide law. Only the Virginia General Assembly has the power to ban the practice. Virginia is one of 31 states that does not have laws preventing conversion therapy, according to the Movement Advancement Project.

In the past, state legislators introduced laws on conversion therapy, but none of these bills passed the Senate floor:

  • SB262 - Introduced in January 2016 by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The bill prohibited any health care professionals from performing conversion therapy on minors and said that state funds could not be spent on the practice. In 2018, Surovell introduced an identical bill, SB 245, that also did not pass.
  • SB1773 - Introduced in January by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. The bill would require Virginia health boards to release regulations or guidance documents defining what conversion therapy is and what is deemed unprofessional conduct for minors.
  • SB1778 - Introduced in January by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford. Would prohibit the usage of electroshock, aversion or any other physical treatments when performing conversion therapy on minors.

Three Virginia boards that advise mental health professions - the Board of Psychology, Board of Counseling and Board of Social Work - all voted to prohibit conversion therapy on minors. The boards have the executive power to create a regulation change without legislative approval and to take disciplinary action against anyone who offers conversion therapy to minors. Virginia residents were allowed to weigh in on the proposed bans during a public comment period.

Josh Hetzler, legislative counsel for The Family Foundation of Virginia, wrote that the boards’ guidance is “overtly at odds with the laws of Virginia and the Constitution of the United States.” The faith-based public policy group believes the ban usurps a parent’s right to make decisions concerning the upbringing of their child and subjects them to "discrimination on the basis of religious conviction." They believe it might not hold up to legal scrutiny.

Hetzler also referred to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that “professional speech” receives the same First Amendment protection as ordinary speech.

The Virginia Catholic Conference, a public policy agency representing Virginia’s Catholic bishops and their two dioceses, is also against the ban.

“When minors have unwanted same-sex or mixed-sex attractions, they and their families should be free to seek counseling towards the resolutions they desire,” Jeff Caruso, VCC executive director, wrote in the forum. “Licensed professionals with years of education and experience should not be removed from the process of helping children work through these sensitive and deeply personal issues.”

Caruso also said the ban would affect “the fundamental rights of parents for their children” as well as the “limits on regulatory authority that ensure consistency with the General Assembly.”

The Trevor Project conducted an inaugural LGBTQ Youth Mental Health survey this year. The research concluded that a small percentage of LGBTQ youth undergo conversion therapy (5%) and that 42% of those who do attempt suicide. That’s compared to 17% of LGBTQ youth who attempt suicide but do not undergo conversion therapy.

“I am proud that members of Richmond’s City Council joined me in opposing the inhumane and regressive practice of conversion therapy and affirming the sexual orientation and identities of all Richmonders,” Stoney said earlier this month on social media.

Equality Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, applauded Richmond’s leadership for taking the initiative to regulate conversion therapy.

“It’s exciting to see Richmond wanting to be vocal on this issue,” said James Parrish, executive director for Equality Virginia. But, he said, it is more important to see health professionals advocating for permanent, statewide change.

Parrish and Equality Virginia hope the practice is banned in the state because mental health advocates believe it “mentally and physically harms people.”

“At the end of the day, we need everyone working to end this practice,” Parrish said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.