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House advances bill to ban conversion therapy in Minnesota

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Wil Sampson-Bernstrom still can’t remember it all.

Bernstrom spent four years in therapy designed to “cure” him of his attraction toward men, sometimes through a process he likened to hypnosis.

"We'd pray for God to bring up these lies from my past, and almost like with your DVR remote, we deleted those memories," he said. "I can't explain what that looks like or feels like, but I know to this day that there are spots in my brain, that when I try to remember my life, my family, I see the bright light that was supposed to represent the love of Christ."

He said he is now happily out and married to a man, but it didn't erase the years "that I was told I was a threat and dangerous to other people."

He was in St. Paul on Wednesday testifying in a House committee in favor of a proposal that would ban a mental health practitioners or professionals from attempting to change someone's sexual orientation -- a practice known as conversion therapy -- on a minor in Minnesota. Members of the Health and Human Services Committee in the House heard hours of emotional testimony that stretched into the evening, eventually approving the bill by a 10-6 vote.

"Conversion therapy is not only an unfounded scientific practice, but also a seriously damaging one as well," said Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage, the author of the bill and the only openly gay member serving in the state House.

Major mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, oppose the therapy because it starts with the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder.  Other groups have said there's no scientific evidence backing the therapy, and it can permanently damage a person's mental health, especially in the developing brains of adolescents.

"These harmful practices are based on the false claim that being LGBTQ is a mental illness," said Emma McBride, policy and legislative affairs staffer with OutFront Minnesota. "The UN has likened this to torture."

But opponents argued the bill was too broad and would not only infringe on Minnesotan's religious freedoms, it would also take away the choice for those who seek out the therapy. 

Several men who had gone through therapy to change their sexual orientation through their church testified they are now "living a heterosexual lifestyle" and married with children. 

"There are many in this state who desire input of their faith communities to make well informed wise choices regarding how they navigate their same sex attractions and gender dysphoria in a way that honors their faith," said Nate Oyloe, who went through therapy and is now married to a woman and working as a pastor. 

"I was honored and loved and I was given the power of choice and the dignity to think for myself," he added. 

Under the bill, anyone practicing this kind of therapy could be disciplined by state mental health boards. Republican legislators expressed concern that a mental health professional could be punished for even having a youth come to them with concerns about their sexuality.

There were also questions about whether the proposal will pass muster in the courts. Religious freedom groups are challenging similar bans, including in Tampa, Florida, where the city passed its own ordinance banning conversion therapy.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports banning the practice, but the proposal faces challenges in the Senate, where Republicans control the chamber and are not moving a proposal.