Gay lawmaker wants to ban conversion therapy for minors

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A gay Brookhaven lawmaker filed legislation that would make Georgia the first state in the South to ban conversion therapy for minors. Meanwhile, a transgender official in Doraville found a unique workaround to rid her city of the controversial practice.

State Rep. Matthew Wilson filed House Bill 569 — the Youth Mental Health Protection Act — on Feb. 18. The measure bans professional counselors, physicians and psychologists from practicing conversion therapy on children under 18 years of age.

“I think that there are a lot of things that we can do at the state level to protect LGBTQ kids, and this is a common-sense bipartisan measure that has broad support and unanimous support among not only among LGBTQ advocates but the mental health professional community,” Wilson told Project Q Atlanta.

“It’s time for the state of Georgia to stand up for LGBTQ kids,” he added.

The bill defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”

Wilson introduced the same bill in 2019. Lawmakers vetted it during the first-ever hearing on conversion therapy, but the measure stalled.

The new effort comes despite a recent federal court ruling throwing out conversion therapy bans in two Florida cities. The November ruling from a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said in November that passing a conversion therapy ban is a priority for his statewide LGBTQ organization in 2021. The 11th Circuit’s decision hasn’t changed that, Graham said in the wake of the ruling.

“We feel that, frankly, this is a bill that addresses some of the issues that the 11th Circuit put forward, and we would hope that the Georgia Legislature would see it that way,” Graham said in January.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper (Photo courtesy Georgia House)

Will Republican lawmakers support a ban?

Three other Democrats co-sponsored HB 569: Reps. Karla Drenner, Mary Margaret Oliver and Debbie Buckner. Drenner is one of seven openly LGBTQ members of the legislature. Wilson doesn’t expect any Republicans to co-sponsor the measure.

“But I have spoken to a lot of Republicans who are supporting the bill,” he said. “A lot of Republicans within the committee it has been assigned to support the bill and are looking forward to vote in favor of it.”

The bill goes to the House Regulated Industries Committee, which counts Reps. Ginny Ehrhart and Rick Jasperse as members. Both Republican lawmakers introduced anti-transgender legislation earlier this month. Ehrhart repeatedly questioned why gender identity was included in Wilson’s 2019 bill.

But there are 12 other Republicans on the committee, including Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican who chairs the House Health & Human Services Committee. She has supported decriminalizing HIV and launching a PrEP pilot program. Cooper did not respond to Project Q’s question about her opinion of the bill.

The committee includes six Democrats.

Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz (Photo by Matt Hennie)

Conversion therapy banned in Doraville

While state lawmakers debate banning conversion therapy for minors, Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz found a creative way to outlaw it in the DeKalb County city.

Koontz, the only transgender elected official in Georgia, proposed the ban in 2019 when the Council rewrote the zoning ordinances for Doraville’s commercial districts.

“When I was reading through the proposals, I saw the section that was banning fraudulent business models such as palm reading and tarot cards and that got me to thinking, well we all know that conversion therapy is a fraudulent medical practice and that there’s no medical basis for it,” she said.

Koontz consulted the city attorney about adding conversion therapy for minors to the list of the city’s prohibited businesses. He agreed they had legal standing to do so, and they banned the practice under the guise of consumer protection.

“While the LGBTQ community understands how harmful this is to minors, and some of us have actually been through the programs and know personally how harmful they are, the legal standing of using consumer protections was a lot stronger,” Koontz said.

She stressed that the practice only bans the practice in Doraville for minors.

“If you’re an adult and you somehow think that you can pray the gay away or whatever, we’re not going to stop adults from harming themselves,” she said. “I do feel like straight parents that don’t understand what being gay is shouldn’t be sold on this fraudulent idea that they can pay someone to make their kid straight. Because that’s straight-up fraud.”

Koontz hopes the use of zoning ordinances to ban the practice spreads to other cities. She also helped spearhead an effort in recent years to pass LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities across metro Atlanta. Doraville passed its ordinance in 2018 just months after Koontz took office.

“I was happy to be able to [get the ban] for the residents of our city,” she said. “I hope other cities see this and follow suit.”

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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