CITY HALL – Witnesses at an aldermanic hearing Wednesday on a bill to ban a therapy that attempts to change a child’s sexual orientation made sharply different claims about the practice.
The three testifying in favor contended that it was discredited, didn’t work and could lead to long-term damage, potentially even suicide. One even used the word “torture” to describe the procedure often called conversion therapy, reparative therapy or ex-gay therapy.
The seven against, all religious and all from outside of the city, contended that it was safe and had helped many to walk away from the LBGTQIA lifestyle. They said banning the practice would deny people the option to seek another way to live and would deny religious liberty.
The opponents made up the majority, but committee members made up the difference, when they voted unanimously to approve the ordinance and recommend passage by the full Board of Aldermen.
“What we’re doing is we’re going to proactively protect our children,” 28th Ward Alderwoman Heather Navarro said.
“It is what you are,” said 1st Ward Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, who spoke of her own family’s experiences with members who were gay. Trying to persuade a person he or she isn’t gay is like telling her she isn’t black, Tyus said.
The bill would prohibit medical and mental health care providers from practicing the therapy on those younger than 18. The prohibition would apply whether or not the provider is paid for the service.
Because of federal and state protections, religiously oriented organizations or counselors would still be able to undertake the practice. The city Department of Health would investigate potential violations and refer them to the city counselor for prosecution in municipal court.
The penalties would be a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment of up to 90 days or both, the maximum allowed by the City Charter.
Those who testified included Kaitlin Cavey, statewide field coordinator of PROMO, a statewide LGBTQIA organization.
LGBTQIA youths who are subjected to the practice are more likely to commit suicide, Cavey said. Ending the practice sends the message that they are perfect the way they are, she said.
Jill Aul, who leads the St. Charles organization of Parents, Friends, Families or Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, told of the effect of conversion therapy on three gay men when they were children.
In 1969, a shock instrument was placed on the genitals of a 12-year-old gay boy. Another was 16 when he was forced into therapy. Although it was not abusive, he feels he was robbed of his adolescence. A third gay man claimed the therapy had caused him severe depression.
“No civilized therapy should allow this,” said James Croft, outreach director for the Ethical Society of St. Louis. When LGBTQIA people describe their own time in the therapy, he said, “They use one word to describe their experience. They are ‘survivors.’”
Taking a different view was Bev Ehlen, state director of Concerned Women for America.
“This ordinance will be challenged,” Ehlen said. “This bill is an affront to parents’ rights.”
The Rev. Jim Venice, founder and executive director of Pure Heart Ministries, said his group had successfully helped hundreds of men and women walk away from homosexuality.
“The passing of this bill would make it even harder for parents to find help for their struggling sons or daughters,” said Venice, who claimed he was set free from the gay lifestyle.
“Contrary to our popular culture, not everyone who struggles with gender confusion wants to embrace those identities,” Venice said. “Please put my face on this bill and ask yourselves: ‘Does Rev. Venice deserve to be punished by fines that would devastate his family’s finances and even jail or prison time for helping parents with their gender-confused son or daughter?’”
Venice said he didn’t counsel minors without a parent or guardian being present. He said there was no consensus among professional organizations about the conversion therapy.
Kansas City’s city council approved on Thursday an ordinance barring the therapy, which also has been banned in Columbia. Kansas City’s ban will apply only to minors and to licensed medical or mental health professionals and does not bar religious leaders from talking to young people about their sexuality or gender identity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.