Out Assemblymember Evan Low is trying something different. He wants to not only make law but also eradicate the harmful anti-LGBT stigma at the core of so-called “conversion therapy” through persuasion. On June 24, at the end of Pride Month and just days before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, he took a firm step toward that goal when his ACR 99 passed the California Assembly on a voice vote, with support from moderate Republican Chad Mayes, son of a pastor and graduate of Liberty University.
The non-binding resolution calls on all Californians, especially religious leaders and educators, to recognize the harm done to LGBT individuals who are forced to undergo the dangerous and disavowed practice of “conversion therapy” to try to change their immutable sexual orientation and gender identity into heterosexual.
But this is not the outcome LGBT politicos expected after he pulled a bill last year that was expected to have national repercussions and promised to produce stronger legislation. Low’s AB 2943 would have expanded the current California ban on “conversion therapy” by declaring it a fraudulent practice under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act and extending certain consumer protections to individuals harmed by efforts to “change” or “repair” their sexual orientation or gender identity.
AB 2943 built on the LGBT youth protection bill authored by then State Sen. Ted Lieu to prevent state-licensed therapists from practicing “psychological child abuse” on minors under 18. Then Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in Sept. 2012, telling the San Francisco Chronicle: “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.” Lieu’s bill became a national model with 18 states following with similar legislation.
Low, then chair of the California LGBT Legislative Caucus, spoke for many in presenting his case before the Assembly last year. “This is a very personal issue to me,” Low said. “Growing up with so much hate, I, too wanted to find out if I could be changed and if anything could work because of the societal pressures that we have. There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing that needs to be changed.”
The Assembly also heard from survivors such as Ryan Kendall. “As a young teen, the anti-gay practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy’ destroyed my life and tore apart my family,” he said. “In order to stop the therapy that misled my parents into believing that I could somehow be made straight, I was forced to run away from home, surrender myself to the local department of human services, and legally separate myself from my family. At the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of ‘conversion therapy,’ coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide.”
Low’s AB 2943 passed both chambers and was expected to be signed into law by Brown, despite a swarm of controversy. In fact, the conservative Federalist.com called fact-checking website Snopes a “sneaky liar” after Snopes declared “False” some religious claims that the bill would make the sale of Bibles illegal.
That didn’t stop conservative media from spreading the inaccuracies.
“This is essentially criminalizing religious beliefs. And I don’t mean to speak in hyperbole here, but if this bill were to pass, would this prohibit the sale of the Bible, that teaches these things about sexual morality?” One America News Network’s “Tipping Point” host Liz Wheeler asked Republican Assemblymember Travis Allen, a gubernatorial candidate (italization is by Snopes).
“Well, literally, according to how this law is written, yes, it would. This is, you know, PC culture, politically correct culture, gone horribly awry. This is really directly hitting at our First Amendment rights as American citizens. Now the Democrat legislators in this building, right behind me, the California state legislature, they want to tell you how to think, what sort of books that you can read, write and purchase,” Allen replied.
Many were shocked when Low pulled the bill. But in building support for AB 2943, he saw something else happening. Traditionally anti-LGBT religious told him that while they still considered homosexuality to be a sin, they did not agree with “reparative therapy.”
“I was heartened by the conversations,” Low told the Los Angeles Blade last September. “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.”
After Low took a year to listen and dialogue, he introduced ACR-99. “We have a long road in the fight to remove LGBTQ stigma and discrimination from our culture,” he said. “While we live in one of the most politically divided times in living memory, ACR 99 demonstrates that it is possible for two seemingly divergent, but truly overlapping, communities to work together to address a controversial subject. We will continue to work together to build bridges and strengthen alliances in our fight against the harmful practice of conversion therapy.”
Some of his most unlikely support came from religious educators who were keenly aware of the depression and suicidal thinking of LGBT students.
“Believing that every person is created in the image of God, we support this call to equitable treatment of all people. We are glad to affirm your desire to see people as they are, protecting their autonomy, dignity, and to treat them with the respect that is due them as God’s creation. The call to compassion and caring treatment is consistent with our deep desire to reflect Christ in all we do,” Kevin Mannoia, Chaplain at Azusa Pacific University and former President of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in a press release after the resolution passed the Judiciary Committee.
Low says meeting with evangelical leaders was like “going into the lion’s den.” But then he had an epiphany, finding “such a different contrast to what I had anticipated the reception would be when I met with them,” especially the expected hate.
“In fact,” Low tells the Los Angeles Blade, when I asked them point blank, ‘Do you believe in conversion therapy? And do you believe that it works?’—the answer was ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Do you agree that it’s harmful?’ And they said ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, why are you opposing this legislation, because it would appear, then, that we would be in alignment?’ And they said, ‘The unintended consequences for us is overreaching and too broad and could we have greater conversations collectively about that?’”
Low decided to introduce a resolution first, before bring back a stronger version of AB 2943. “I think progress takes time. Remember that saying: ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’ I think that this hopefully will be a transformative effort in which the evangelical community and the LGBT community can finally find something to which we can be in lockstep, hand-in-hand, in supporting collectively,” though he concedes that on individual issues such as marriage equality “we are on opposite sides.”
But, Low says, “on a fundamental issue like ‘conversion therapy,’ this, I believe, is historic. We have evangelical leaders putting their name to this resolution, coming to present in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, to stand by the side of the LGBT community in partnership in denouncing ‘conversion therapy’ as a harmful practice. And that is the first step for us. Then to build off of that relationship to hopefully look further as to how we can continue to advance the issues of inclusion, love, and respect for all people.”
But Low notes that there was some prodding that preceded evangelicals denouncing “conversion therapy” through ACR 99. Two years ago, Low and then Sen. Ricardo Lara introduced a bill that would strip Cal Grant funding of student financial aid from these religious colleges like Loyola, Azusa that discriminated against LGBT students. “Colleges in the state of California were kicking out and banning students based on sexual orientation and yet they receive public taxpayer dollars,” Low says. “That was my first entrée into sort of ‘battling’ evangelical and religious leaders with respect to LGBT rights and that of the religious community.”
But as he was trying to build a coalition of support for his bill, Low established “a number of genuine warm relationships” with some evangelicals who were also interested in finding a common ground.
“So that’s why I felt that, okay, we’re talking about conversion therapy, but this is much broader,” Low says. “The symbolism and the rhetoric and the narrative behind this is transformational. In other words, what can we now do from this resolution in which we have put ourselves on the front lines of this, and what can be build off of this? So yes, we will hope to then figure out what we can then codify and change into law with respect to strengthening our laws against conversion therapy.”
After that, Low says the coalition will look at “other things that we can do to help build bridges with the religious community on a number of things affecting our LGBT community.”
“I never thought that I actually personally would be in this position in which I’m actually thanking and standing hand-in-hand with evangelical and religious leaders,” Low says, the same leaders he’d see time after time on the opposite side. “Dialogue is so important. That’s what I think is very transformational.”
The Williams Institute at UCLA posted an update of their January 2018 report on “conversion therapy” estimates noting that 698,000 LGBTQ adults (ages 18-59) in the United States were subjected to “conversion therapy,” of which 350,000 LGBTQ adults reporting that they were subjected to the practice as adolescents.
The report notes that 16,000 LGBTQ youth (ages 13-17) will receive “conversion therapy” from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 32 states that currently do not ban the practice. An estimated 57,000 youth (ages 13-17) across all states will receive “conversion therapy” from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.
However, an estimated 10,000 LGBTQ youth (ages 13-17) live in states that ban “conversion therapy” and thus have been protected.
A number of prominent professional health associations—including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others—have issued public statements opposing the use of the therapy, saying it is harmful and ineffective.
The American Psychological Association previously released a finding stating that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity are associated with poor mental health and tend to increase the risk of suicide, especially in LGBTQ youth.
ACR 99 now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then to the full Senate, where it is expected to pass. The resolution does not require Gov. Newsom’s signature. – Staff reports contributed to this story.
The photo of Assemblymember Evan Low testifying is courtesy Low’s office.