Aug. 31, the end of the California legislative session, started out joyfully for LGBT Californians. Landmark LGBT bills had already been signed or were headed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. California really did feel like a beacon of hope.
But suddenly out Assembly member Evan Low pulled his Assembly Bill 2943, legislation to declare so-called “conversion therapy” a fraudulent practice. It was a shock. The bill passed the Senate on Aug. 16 by a vote of 25-11. It had backing from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the California Medical Association, and the Consumer Attorneys of California. AB 2943 seemed set to prohibit the practice of advertising or selling fraudulent claims to change someone’s LGBT sexual orientation or gender identity.
Plus, Brown was expected to sign it. In 2012, he told the San Francisco Chronicle after signing then-State Sen. Ted Lieu’s SB 1172: “This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”
Low issued a press release that was both emotional and somewhat confusing. “Authoring Assembly Bill 2943 is one of the most personal decisions I have made since taking office,” he said. As a confused young person, he hid his feelings “because I was afraid of what others would think of me. This left me feeling very lost, scared, alone, and even suicidal. I wondered if I could change. Coming out was not an easy experience” but he found support, unlike many others who were subjected to conversion therapy. He authored AB 2943 “to ensure a remedy for those who are deceived by this deceptive practice.”
Low tweaked AB 2943 in response to intense opposition as it progressed through the legislature. He also spent the past few months meeting with faith leaders throughout the state.
“I was heartened by the conversations,” Low said. “A number of religious leaders denounced conversion therapy and recognized how harmful the practice is while acknowledging it has been discredited by the medical and psychological communities. I left those productive conversations feeling hopeful. I believe every person who attended these meetings left with a greater understanding for the underlying reason and intention of this bill to create a loving and inclusive environment for all. However, I believe there is still more to learn.”
Low pulled AB 2943 to create a stronger bill produced in a more “inclusive process not hampered by legislative deadlines” that will also serve as a model for the nation. “It is my obligation as a Legislator to make this difficult decision in the interest of finding common ground. The path towards full equality is a long journey, but a journey best traveled together. I invite you to join me,” Low said.
Low’s backers stood behind him, calling him a hero. But others were skeptical. Had he caved to the religious right? Was this really a matter of political expedience to avoid giving anti-LGBT Republicans a talking point before the mid-terms.
Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur says no. “Absolutely not,” Zbur told the Los Angeles Blade. “Both chambers already voted on the bill, and we were proud of the bipartisan support we received. We think most voters appreciate that their elected leaders stood up for LGBTQ Californians and to protect consumers from this fraudulent, dangerous practice.”
AB 2943 really was pulled to get more support, he says, including from the surprising new group of faith leaders who opposed the bill—and opposed ‘conversion therapy.’
“This is a really important issue and we’re committed to getting it right,” Zbur says. “We saw an opportunity to work with key stakeholders—including members of the LGBTQ community, medical and mental health professionals, and faith leaders who oppose conversion therapy—to strengthen the legislation, make sure it’s ironclad and continue building consensus around this issue among Californians. Because the state’s existing consumer protection laws already safeguard the LGBTQ community against these dangerous, discredited and fraudulent practices, we felt that it was more important to take additional time and make sure we send the strongest possible policy to the governor than it was to get this done by an arbitrary legislative deadline.”
Past religious right opposition to banning “conversion therapy” has used arguments based on religious liberty and parental rights. But this time, groups such as Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom, promoted myths and misinformation that the bill “would have labeled the essential Biblical belief of life transformation through Jesus as an unfair and deceptive practice,” as Anne Paulk, Executive Director of Restored Hope Network, put it.
Other, more nuanced misinformation had to be cleared up, as well. “For example,” says Zbur, “one nuance that’s important we’re clear on is the distinction between so-called ‘conversion therapy’ or sexual orientation change efforts and traditional, neutral counseling that’s aimed at facilitating a patient’s exploration of their identity and self-acceptance. We need to make sure that we’re clear on where that gradation starts, and that takes time to get right.”
The reaction from the religious right was surprising. “We want to thank Assemblyman Low for considering the repercussions of this bill and making the decision to pull it,” Karen England, head of the anti-LGBT Capitol Resource Institute, wrote. “We believe that we can have disagreements on policy and even life decisions, yet do so in a respectful manner, and that is what we have aimed to do throughout this process.”
Hold on. This should be an interesting ride.