LGBTQ advocates fight to ban conversion therapy in Georgia

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LGBTQ advocates are renewing a push to make Georgia first in the South to ban conversion therapy. They hope to add the state to the list of 20 that already outlaw the controversial practice. 

The 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.

The LGBTQ lawmaker who introduced a bill curtailing conversion therapy in Georgia said there is bipartisan support for the legislation.

“I absolutely plan on reintroducing the bill,” said state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven. “We have been busy in the off-season preparing to do so. Despite the 11th Circuit’s opinion, our bipartisan efforts will continue.”

Wilson introduced the Youth Mental Health Protection Act in 2019. The measure proposed banning professional counselors in the state from providing treatment to change sexual orientation or gender identity for anyone under the age of 18. Lawmakers vetted the bill during the first-ever hearing on conversion therapy, but the measure stalled.

“We have not changed the language of our bill. It is going to be the same language as it was last time. And that language has been endorsed by every professional medical association in the state as well as the American Medical Association,” Wilson said. 

“The science on this issue is unanimous that these practices are harmful to LGBTQ youth,” he added.

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. 

Graham said he wants lawmakers to hold a hearing on the legislation, as they did in 2019, to allow supporters of the conversion therapy ban “to present our case.”

“This is a practice that has been discredited by the medical profession very broadly. The state of Georgia should follow the 20 or 21 other states that have already outlawed this practice through its regulatory powers to do that,” he said.

Wilson said introducing the bill in 2019 was part of a multi-year strategy that stalled in 2020 when the legislative session was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers return for the start of a new two-year session on Jan. 11, so bills must be refiled and start the legislative process again.

Georgia would be the first state in the South to ban conversion therapy. It would join 20 other states that prohibit the practice, according to the Movement Advancement Project.

“I am hopeful that we’ll have public bipartisan support this year when the bill is reintroduced. We are going to really push to get the bill through the committee and to the House floor,” Wilson said.

In 2019, lawmakers vetted Wilson’s legislation during a hearing from a subcommittee of the House Regulated Industries committee. They heard testimony from mental health experts, LGBTQ advocates and a survivor of conversion therapy.

But at least one lawmaker criticized the bill. 

Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs, repeatedly questioned why gender identity was included in the legislation. She said sexual orientation and gender identity “are diametrically different conditions with diametrically different treatments.” She said that a child’s sexual orientation “doesn’t require any sort of intervention.”

Ehrhart has compared transgender people to animals and introduced legislation to prevent medical professionals from providing hormone treatments and gender affirmation surgery to minors. 

In 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council called on the state to end conversion therapy and the “persecution and suffering” it brings to LGBTQ Georgians.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham

‘I am alarmed by the 11th Circuit opinion’

In November, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court struck down conversion therapy bans put in place in Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, Florida. Judges Britt Grant and Barbara Lagoa ruled that the bans restricted free speech and were nothing more than content discrimination. 

“People have intense moral, religious, and spiritual views about these matters – on all sides,” Grant and Lagoa wrote. “And that is exactly why the First Amendment does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender.”

Judge Beverly Martin dissented and cited “a mountain of rigorous evidence” that conversion therapy is harmful. 

In December, Boca Raton and Palm Beach County asked for the full 11th Circuit to rehear the case. The conservative court often rules against LGBTQ equality issues, including in the case of Gerald Bostock. The Clayton County man sued his employers when he was fired for being gay. The 11th Circuit ruled against Bostock – twice – before the U.S. Supreme Court sided with him in a landmark decision for LGBTQ equality in 2020.

Grant, with a lengthy anti-LGBTQ record, was a Georgia Supreme Court justice before President Trump appointed her to the 11th Circuit in 2018. U.S. Sen. David Perdue voted for her when the Senate approved her nomination with a 52-44 vote.

Lambda Legal condemned the 11th Circuit’s decision striking down the conversion therapy bans. 

“Laws prohibiting this dangerous practice have withstood legal challenges in numerous courts,” Kevin Jennings, Lambda’s CEO, said in a prepared statement. “[The] decision is a marked departure from precedent and an incredibly dangerous decision for our youth.”

Wilson also criticized the decision. He called the 11th Circuit’s decision “an outlier.”

“I am alarmed by the 11th Circuit opinion. It’s been brought through the federal courts at least five different times. And this is the only court that has held it to be unconstitutional,” he said.

“The 11th Circuit is really far afield from not only where the science is on this issue, but also where the law is and where other circuit courts and the Supreme Court are on this issue. But by no means is it going to stop us from pushing forward,” Wilson added.

This story is made possible by a grant from the Election SOS Rapid Response Fund.

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