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State legislators, Obama call for end to conversion therapy

California banned it in 2012, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made it illegal in 2013, and President Barack Obama denounced its validity Wednesday.

Florida is one of about 20 states addressing the ethics and effectiveness of conversion therapy, a counseling method that aims to change individuals from homosexual to heterosexual.

With proposed sister bills House Bill 83 and Senate Bill 204, Florida could be among the next states to ban the therapy method for minors, if the bill can get through its committees.

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, and state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, proposed the bills in December.

The proposed bills would only ban conversion therapy done by licensed counselors. It wouldn’t prohibit churches or others from practicing it.

As the first openly gay Florida state legislator, Richardson said it’s important youth are not forced into conversion therapy. He said he thinks his bill won’t be heard in its committees because they are chaired by Republicans.

Still, he’s hopeful the bill will lead people to discuss LGBTQ+ rights.

“When I file it, it gets conversation,” he said.

John Super, a UF clinical assistant professor of counselor education, said conversion therapy methods vary from associating negative images with homosexuality to using electroshock therapy.

Conversion therapy can cause emotional distress such as depression, anxiety and damage to future relationships, Super said.

While some adults approach Super seeking the therapy, he said he does not practice it. Instead, he offers other counseling methods.

Terry Fleming, co-president of the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida, said he hopes to see the House bill move to next session’s agenda. He  said he is strongly opposed to the therapy.

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“(Conversion therapy) needs to be stopped,” he said.  “Young people need to be protected from these efforts that damage them.”

Obama’s administration has also taken a stand against conversion therapy.

“We are hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken by these states (that have bills to outlaw conversion therapy for minors) will lead to broader action that this administration would support,” Valerie Jarrett, a presidential senior adviser, wrote in response to a petition to enact Leelah’s Law, which would ban the therapy.

By speaking openly about conversion therapy, Richardson said Obama is educating the U.S. about the issue, adding that the amount of support for the LGBTQ+ community is growing.

“As each day passes, more and more people meet people who are gay or lesbian or transgender,” Richardson said.

Keith Vennum, a UF alumnus and counselor who practices reparative therapy, said the government shouldn’t prohibit it.

“Any kind of therapy that the minor wants should be available to them,” he said.

But Super said the therapy has been proven to be ineffective, citing the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association, both of which are against it.

Fleming said the bills are important for minors, who are usually forced into therapy by their parents.

“The reparative therapy, by its very nature, is being forced on people,” he said. “There’s nothing voluntary about it — ever.”

Fleming said he has lobbied for HB 83 on behalf of north central Florida’s Pride group. Other LGBTQ+-rights supporters, such as Equality Florida and the United Church of Gainesville, also spoke with legislators.

“We think it’s an incredibly important bill, and we hope it will pass,” Fleming said.

[A version of this story ran on page 4 on 4/14/2015]

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