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Minneapolis council panel OKs ban on 'conversion' therapy

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A man talks at a rally at the Minneapolis City Hall.
Roger Sanchez, of Minneapolis, who endured "conversion therapy" as a young adult, speaks at a rally at the City Hall on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, ahead of a council committee vote to ban the practice in the city.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The Minneapolis City Council this week is expected to pass a ban on so-called “conversion therapy” for minors. The controversial practice aims to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. It has drawn the ire of many in the LGBT community and others, who say it doesn’t work, has no scientific basis, and amounts to psychological torture.

The ordinance would prohibit licensed mental health professionals in Minneapolis from practicing what detractors call conversion therapy on anyone under 18.

Roger Sanchez of Minneapolis said he wishes such a ban would have been in place when he was a teenager. Sanchez, who is gay, said his father and a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both urged him to get psychotherapy to change his sexual orientation.

It did not involve shock treatments or anything physically invasive, but Sanchez said what he went through was damaging because it made him believe he was somehow disordered.

“They go into your childhood and they find a cause as to why you’re gay. And in a way they try to rewire you,” Sanchez said. “So for example they would tell me you need to play more football, you need to have more relationship with men to try to rewire myself. Because they said it was something in puberty that happened that made me gay.”

Sanchez grew up in California. That state banned the practice statewide for minors in 2012. Similar legislation passed the Minnesota House last session, but failed in the state Senate. Phillipe Cunningham, one of two transgender council members in Minneapolis, says cities must act.

“We cannot rely on powers beyond our municipality because change has to start local. We know our constituents best because we are truly serving them day by day,” Cunningham said.

Monica Meyer with Outfront Minnesota said Minneapolis has a long history of enshrining LGBT rights in the ordinance book.

“When there were zero legal protections for our families, the city of Minneapolis started domestic partnership registries and really tried to look at what in the power of the city we could do to recognize the fact that we have same-sex couples and they have children and they live in the city,” Meyer said.

Dozens of people filled the city council chambers Monday to testify in favor of the ban on so-called conversion therapy. But Minneapolis resident Michael Newland urged council members to reconsider it.

Newland says at age 17 he voluntarily sought treatment to deal with his attraction to others of the same gender because he wanted to live his life in line with his Christian faith. He did not call it coercive or abusive.

“And as I worked through a myriad of issues, indeed my sexual attractions toward men gradually diminished and heterosexual attractions eventually emerged. Today I can say I’m living at peace and am very satisfied with my life. In fact I’m now happily married to a woman,” Newland testified.

LGBT activists say they hope if city councils in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Golden Valley ban conversion therapy, the legislature will act.

But if they try again, state lawmakers are certain to face pushback. Moses Bratrud, communications director with the Minnesota Family Council said mental health care is already regulated at the state level, and practitioners who abuse patients face sanctions including loss of their license.

Bratrud said state or city bans on what he calls “sexual orientation change efforts” violate First Amendment protections of speech and religion.

“It’s certainly not for everyone, but I have to stand up for those people and say the city has no right to interfere in what type of mental health care that you choose for yourself and the goals you set for yourself,” Bratrud said.

In the federal courts, the issue remains unsettled. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s ban. But on narrow grounds, a district court in Florida struck down an ordinance in Tampa that’s similar to the proposal in Minneapolis.

But supporters of the measure here say even if enforcement is limited geographically, passage sends the message to LGBT youth that their sexual orientation is not a problem in need of repair.

The ordinance goes before the full City Council Friday.