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Allegheny County Council Drops 'Conversion Therapy' Bills – At Least For Now

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Democratic Allegheny County Council members John DeFazio (second from left) and Paul Klein (center) sponsored a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors.

Two Allegheny County Council bills that would address so-called "conversion therapy" for minors likely won't get a vote this year. On Wednesday, council’s Health and Human Services Committee canceled a meeting to discuss the bills, which had been scheduled for later in the day. Councilors said no action is expected before the end of the year's legislative session, which would effectively kill the measures unless reintroduced next year.

Conversion therapy seeks to change individuals' sexual orientation or gender identity, but professional medical organizations have long criticized it as causing severe mental health problems. One of the bills, introduced by Democrats Paul Klein and John DeFazio in March, sought to ban the practice.

In September, three conservative-leaning councilors introduced a separate bill that would have allowed conversion programs if a child consents, and if the treatment doesn’t cause physical pain. Its sponsors included Republicans Sue Means and Sam DeMarco, as well as Democrat Denise Ranalli-Russell.

Although the bills were introduced months ago, the Health and Human Services Committee did not discuss either proposal until last month. Klein said such delay did not leave enough time to vet the legislation.

“My colleagues on council have said, ‘We just don’t understand what this is all about. We need more information,’” Klein said.

Health and Human Services committee chair John Palmiere, a Democrat, did not return a call Wednesday afternoon requesting comment on why his committee did not take up the bills sooner.

Klein said councilors still need to hear from experts in a range of fields including psychiatry, social work, and law. That’s why, he said, it would be best to reconsider the legislation when council reconvenes next year, when he intends to reintroduce the all-out ban.

Means, however, said she was ready to move forward with her legislation before the end of the year. She disagreed with the decision to cancel Wednesday’s hearing.

“I had expert witnesses lined up this time. I had them en route,” Means said.

Means will not return to council next year after losing her reelection bid to Democrat Tom Duerr this fall.  Ranalli-Russell, one of her cosponsors, also won't be returning, since Liv Bennett defeated her in the May Democratic primary. Still, Means said she hopes her proposal on conversion therapy is reintroduced.

Activists had planned to attend Wednesday’s meeting, according to sources and a post on the Steel City Stonewall Democrats’ Facebook page. The group advocates for LGBTQ rights and supported Klein's proposed ban.

LGBTQ activist Maria Montano said several groups intended to observe the meeting, and surmised that councilors were wary of the scrutiny.

"I think county council isn't necessarily used to people paying attention to what it does," she said. But with next year's council shaping up to be more progressive than the current body, she was optimistic that a ban on conversion therapy would be passed in 2020.

Wednesday's meeting would have followed a Nov. 20 session, at which Pennsylvania Family Council attorney Curtis Schube touted the Means bill.

In written testimony, Schube criticized Klein’s proposal as being too sweeping, and said it would prevent “any effort to help a minor to reduce same-sex attraction or feelings of being the opposite sex, even if the minor wants the help.”

Among the speakers who had been set to testify Wednesday was Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth.

Pick contested Schube’s characterization of sexual orientation and gender identity formation, saying it is “based on the idea that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is an illness, an ailment that can and should be fixed.”

Schube noted in his statement that New York City and Tampa, Fla., have rolled back blanket bans of conversion therapy amid concerns that they violate patients’ rights to privacy. But Pick countered that courts have blocked legal challenges to bans in Maryland and in Boca Raton and Palm Beach, Fla. Federal appeals courts have similarly upheld bans in New Jersey and California.

Eighteen states and more than 50 local governments, including the city of Pittsburgh, have enacted bans against conversion therapy.