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Advocates rally for 11th-hour conversion therapy ban

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Supporters of a conversion therapy ban in Minnesota flooded a Senate office building on Wednesday in a last-minute attempt to lobby Republican senators to support a bill stopping the practice.

The proposal would prohibit mental health practitioners and professionals from any practice “that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity," including attempts to "reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender."

The bill was amended on to a health and human services budget bill in the DFL-controlled House, but Republicans in control of the Senate rejected adding the same language to their budget proposal. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said Senate Republicans are in "turmoil" over the issue.

"They know in their hearts what the right thing to do is, they know what the right thing to do is on behalf of members of their own family, their friends and their neighbors, and they know the politics of this this situation are such that they are going to be very embarrassed if they defeat this," he said.

Supporters of lifting the ban sat in the health and human services budget conference committee meeting on Wednesday and left placards and notes at the office of Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the leader of the Republican majority caucus. The Star Tribune recently reported that Gazelka's daughter went through conversion therapy.

Supporters of the ban argue the practice is discredited by mental health groups and medical boards as ineffective and damaging.

"Things that made me think I was gay in my past were erased," said Will Bernstrom-Sampson, who went through conversion therapy in Alabama and Florida but now lives in Minnesota. "That is what is happening to queer youth across the country. We're told that we don't belong in this society and that we need to change, and Minnesota is so much better than that."

The ban would affect licensed mental health counselors and practitioners, but opponents have raised concerns that it could also impact religious leaders who are approached by someone for counsel about their sexuality.

Several Republican senators are working with religious groups on an amendment to the bill that would ban conversion therapy that is "aversive" and "coercive." These are the more extreme forms of conversion therapy, including shock therapy, that haven't been used regularly in decades, Dibble said.

By adding those two words to the bill, he said it still allows conversion therapy as it is being practiced today.

"[They want] political cover to say they did something," Dibble said. "It's my job to make sure the public knows that's not a compromise, that's hogwash."

If the law is passed, Minnesota will become the 18th state to prohibit the practice.

Legislators have until  May 20 to finish their work for the regular session.