Advocates hail Gov. Tom Wolf's action against LGBTQ conversion therapy

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

An executive order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf banning the use of taxpayer dollars on conversion therapy drew praise from local LGBTQ advocates.

But that praise came with the acknowledgement that more needs to be done.

"It's a very exciting step in the advocacy and support of the LGBTQI+ community," said Rainbow Rose Center president Tesla Taliaferro.

Conversion therapy is an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Those types of clinics, which are often affiliated with religious groups, attempt to convince people they are mentally ill and use psychological interventions to change sexual orientation, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Often, conversion therapy results in more emotional and psychological distress. According to a recent study published by the American Journal of Public Health, such therapy was associated with elevated rates of suicidal thoughts. A more recent study by The Trevor Project found that 13% of all LGBTQ youth nationwide reported being forced to attend conversion therapy, the vast majority of them under the age of 18.

Maria McCargo Gable, vice president of the Rainbow Rose Center, had firsthand experience with conversion therapy. Her first husband forced her into it, she said.

“I was physically ill because of it. I lost weight. I had no appetite,” Gable said. “It was torture.”

Maria McCargo Gable, Vice President of the Rainbow Rose Center, at her home in York County on June 23, 2022.

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In addition to banning the use of taxpayer dollars on conversion therapy, Wolf's order prohibits state-sponsored insurance from covering conversion therapy and would investigate complaints of insurance discrimination for gender-related care. It also ensures that the governor’s office and any other state offices are treating LGBTQ+ constituents with culturally appropriate care and service.

“This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it," Wolf said Tuesday at a news conference. "This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”

Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order Tuesday banning conversation therapy programs from seeking public funding.

Wolf went further, describing conversion therapy as "junk science."

While the executive order is a good sign, Taliaferro said it's not enough.

"We know that as an executive order, these protections are not guaranteed. Under a new administration, they can be overturned," Taliaferro said, "and so we need to continue to promote and advocate for the ongoing and permanent right of the LGBTQIA+ community."

Rainbow Rose Center President Tesla Taliaferro

That includes working with local municipalities, including the York City Council, to enact local bans on conversion therapy. He said the hope is that as more and more municipalities enact conversion therapy bans, it will be taken up by the state legislature and eventually the federal government.

In 2016, Pittsburgh became the first city in Pennsylvania to ban conversion therapy. Other cities, such as Allentown and Reading, have passed their own ordinances since then.

Wolf's order was also heralded by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth.

“Taxpayers’ dollars must never again be spent on the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion ‘therapy’ — which has been consistently associated with increased suicide risk and an estimated $9.23 billion economic burden in the U.S.,” Trevor Project senior manager Troy Stevenson said.

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State Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, celebrated the executive order.

“The disgusting and archaic practice of conversion therapy has no place in modern society,” Sims said in a written statement.

The order comes months before the 2022 gubernatorial election that will choose Wolf's successor. That person could reverse Tuesday's executive order.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order Tuesday banning conversation therapy programs from seeking public funding.

Republican nominee and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, for example, has said he opposes gay marriage.

Neither Mastriano nor his opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, responded to a request for comment Tuesday. 

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.