Pennsylvania Governor Signs Anti-Conversion Therapy Order

·5 min read
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order aimed at discouraging conversion therapy in the state.

“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” Wolf, a Democrat, said in a press release Tuesday. “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. This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”

The order won’t end conversion therapy in Pennsylvania, but it is designed to cut into it and assure that state funds are not used to pay for the practice. “All agencies under the Governor’s jurisdiction are directed to pursue opportunities and coordinate with each other to protect Pennsylvanians, particularly children, youth, and vulnerable adults, from conversion therapy to the fullest extent of their authority,” the order says.

It directs agencies “to explore and implement all options to ensure state funds, programs, contracts, and other resources are not used for the purposes of providing, authorizing, endorsing, reimbursing for, or referring for conversion therapy, to the extent permitted by law.” It calls on them to discourage commercial insurers from providing reimbursement for conversion therapy as well and “to inform the public of the mechanisms available to report licensed professionals that cause harm to patients as a result of conversion therapy.”

It further tells agencies “to take steps to actively promote evidence-based best practices for LGBTQIA+ individuals that is actually supported by the scientific and medical communities” and directs them “to make updates to policies and procedures to better support LGBTQIA+ employees and the Pennsylvanians we serve,” according to the press release.

“Conversion therapy is causing horrific consequences for the mental health and well-being of a generation of young LGBTQIA+ individuals,” Wolf said. “But there is something very simple that we can all do to help. We can stand up and tell LGBTQIA+ youth that we hear them and we accept them exactly as they are.

“The Trevor Project’s Youth Mental Health Survey showed that rates of negative mental health outcomes among LGBTQIA+ youth are much lower in communities, schools and families that are accepting and supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. That’s why I signed this executive order to protect Pennsylvanians from conversion therapy and the damage it does to our communities. Because all of our youth deserve to grow up in a commonwealth that accepts and respects them.

“I want LGBTQIA+ youth and individuals across Pennsylvania to know that I stand with you. I see you, I respect you and I support you. My administration will continue to support policies to keep children safe from bullying and harmful practices.”

The Trevor Project praised Wolf’s action. “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.,” Troy Stevenson, senior campaign manager for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, said in the press release. “Thank you, Gov. Wolf, for your leadership and for taking bold action to protect and affirm LGBTQ young people across the Commonwealth. We urge the state legislature to pass comprehensive statewide protections and for governors across the nation to follow the Keystone State’s lead in ending this abusive practice.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws barring licensed professionals from subjecting young people to conversion therapy, according to the Human Rights Campaign, as do many cities and counties across the nation.

At a signing ceremony and press conference Tuesday, Wolf said he favored legislation to ban conversion therapy. "This executive order is the best I can do absent that legislation," he said. Bills to ban the practice have been introduced and have stalled, he said, and he called on legislators to pass one. Wolf spoke of the damage done by conversion therapy, including the high risk of suicide by LGBTQ+ youth.

Also at the press conference, Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, said the order will have some effect on religious groups that provide conversion therapy in that it will keep state funds from going to them through contracts or state insurance policies. Sometimes licensed professionals make referrals to faith-based providers, she noted. "That would be one way of sending a clear message and having a direct impact," she said.

And Carla Christopher Wilson, a member of Pennsylvania's Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, spoke as a survivor of conversion therapy. When she was a youth, Wilson told a Bible study leader about her crush on another girl, and as a result Wilson was sent to a conversion therapy camp several states away. "Within two days that involved being held in a lightless room the size of a closet, pressed to the floor by more hands than I could count, I begged any human or any god that would listen to save me, even change me, if it would make it stop," she said.

Wolf will leave office next year. The Democratic candidate for governor is Josh Shapiro, currently the state's attorney general and an LGBTQ+ ally. He supports a ban on conversion therapy and has endorsed comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians. The state is the only one in the Northeast without these protections.

The Republican, Doug Mastriano, has repeated Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 presidential election being stolen. He also has been caught on tape opposing marriage equality and voicing other far-right views, such as saying same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt children and that Islam is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution.