Michigan Senate gives final OK to ‘suicide prevention’ legislation banning conversion therapy

Sen. Jeremy Allen Moss speaks at a bill signing ceremony for Senate Bill 4, which expands the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for the LGBTQ+ community, on March 16, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

By Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

Michigan is poised to become the country’s 22nd state to bar mental health professionals from performing conversion therapy on minors after the Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation that advocates and Democratic lawmakers said will save the lives of LGBTQ+ youth.

The legislation – House Bills 4616 and 4617 – that would ban conversion therapy on children in Michigan passed 21-15 in the Senate. Every Democratic senator voted for the bills; one Republican, Sen. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker), backed the legislation. Both bills were introduced in May by Reps. Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield) and Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield Twp.).

The Michigan House passed the legislation on June 14; it now goes to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her expected signature.

“This is a suicide prevention bill, period,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in a prepared statement. “With 15% of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ youth reporting being threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy, this historic effort to end conversion therapy is literally life-saving for LGBTQ+ young people in our state.

“Michigan’s LGBTQ+ youth should be free from needless attacks and torture, and deserve to live in a state where they can be healthy, safe, and reach their full potential,” continued Knott, whose organization advocates for policies and legislation benefiting LGBTQ+ people statewide. “Ending the dangerous practice of conversion therapy for youth is a critical step in making Michigan a safe and welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people and our families.”

Conversion therapy is the long discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual or gender identity; the country’s leading medical and mental health organizations have for years condemned the practice that studies have shown lead to higher suicidality rates, anxiety, and depression. The American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and American Counseling Association have denounced conversion therapy; the groups have described it as a deliberately abusive practice.

Hearing a bunch of straight people in the Senate lecture me on what the journey of an LGBTQ person is is the exact reason we should be banning conversion therapy.

– State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)

“The American Counseling Association opposes conversion therapy because it does not work, can cause harm and violates our code of ethics,” the organization writes on its website. “It is an attempt to treat something that is not a mental illness.”

A 2020 study from the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute reported that gay, lesbian and bisexual people who experienced conversion therapy were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as their peers who did not undergo conversion therapy.

“This is child abuse,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “We should have banned this years ago, like the 21 other states under both Republican and Democratic majorities that banned this.”

Michigan’s legislation – which Democratic lawmakers have attempted to pass in previous years but which never received bill hearings under the former Republican-led Legislature – both bans health professionals from practicing conversion therapy and issues penalties for professionals who do not follow the law. Under the legislation, mental health professionals could lose their license to practice if they engaged in conversion therapy on minors.

Prior to the vote on Tuesday, several Republican lawmakers gave extensive speeches condemning the legislation. Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), for example, spoke for about 20 minutes in a speech that lambasted the bills and was heavily laced with anti-LGBTQ+ language.

“We should not so easily dismantle or alter the foundation of the most basic human unit of civilization, the family,” McBroom said on the Senate floor. “Nor should we envision ourselves as somehow so much more enlightened that the understanding of all persons, societies and religions, government, educated and uneducated, of their being two immutable genders, or sexes, should be simply wiped away.”

McBroom went on to say that he has “encyclopedias from the 1980s” that describe “two sexes based on their biological characteristics.

“Are they suddenly simply wrong?” McBroom said.

Numerous researchers have long refuted the idea that there are just two sexes. In the 1950s, the psychologist John Money published research regarding a wide range of biological sex markers – for example, individuals with ovaries and a penis, testes and a vagina, and so forth. Biological sex, Money said more than half a century ago, is not split into XX and XY chromosomes; there are multiple sexes and genders in our society – and likely far more than is currently understood. Additionally, the presence of gender-affirming care is not new; the first documented gender-affirming surgery in the United States took place in the 1950s.

Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) also disagreed with the legislation.

“It is just astounding that we would use the force of state law to pigeonhole mental health professionals into carrying out such drastic medical treatments for children who have their whole life ahead of them,” Albert said on the Senate floor.

A long list of the country’s foremost medical organizations, meanwhile, disagree.

“These [conversion therapy] interventions are provided under the false premise that homosexuality and gender diverse identities are pathological. They are not,” the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry writes on its website. 

“Further, there is evidence that ‘conversion’ therapies increase risk of causing or exacerbating mental health conditions in the very youth they purport to treat,” the organization goes on to say.

Democratic lawmakers issued vehement criticism for their Republican colleagues.

“Hearing a bunch of straight people in the Senate lecture me on what the journey of an LGBTQ person is is the exact reason we should be banning conversion therapy,” said Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the first openly gay senator in Michigan.

“This legislation matches up with all the other states that have banned this barbaric practice of really causing a lot of added negative mental anguish to someone who already has to live in a world where they’re exposed to mental anguish daily,” Moss added.

McMorrow called the GOP lawmakers’ statements “offensive and horrifying.”

“The fearmongering from the other side of the aisle is why rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among the LGBTQ are as high as they are,” McMorrow said.

Speaking to reporters, Moss said it was “very painful for me personally to have to sit here and listen to some of this rhetoric.

“I think that is something that LGBTQ people have to go through day in and day out when they hear about people who condemn them and want to dictate their futures – and, really, their survival.”

This is child abuse. We should have banned this years ago, like the 21 other states under both Republican and Democratic majorities that banned this.

– State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said of conversion therapy

What, Moss asked, would the state be like if Republican lawmakers opposed to banning conversion therapy were mental health professionals?

“I can’t even imagine the darkness that would hang over somebody who is struggling,” Moss said. “This is why we are following the science and best practices in psychology, psychiatry and therapy – to ensure that nobody in the state of Michigan is a licensed professional with that type of vision for somebody in their future.”

Now, Democratic lawmakers said, LGBTQ+ children will be guaranteed to receive life-affirming mental health care that celebrates who they are instead of wrongly informing them that they must change. 

Whitmer is expected to sign the legislation. In June 2021, the governor signed an executive directive prohibiting the use of funds administered by the state health department for the practice of conversion therapy on minors. 

“Since day one, I have made it clear that hate has no home in Michigan,” Whitmer said in a statement issued when she signed the directive in 2021. “My administration is committed to addressing the systemic barriers faced by young LGBTQ+ Michiganders so that our state is a place where they are able to reach their full potential. The actions we take today will serve as a starting point in protecting our LGBTQ+ youth from the damaging practice of conversion therapy and in ensuring that Michigan is a reflection of true inclusion.” 

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.