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Ban Conversion Therapy To Protect Wheeling’s Youth

Wheeling may soon become the third community in our state to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. Members of City Council will vote on an ordinance to protect LGBTQ youth from this abuse on Tuesday, and I strongly urge every member to vote in favor of it.

It saddens me that the Catholic Church has chosen to oppose this ordinance that would protect some of the most vulnerable children from harm. The Most Rev. Mark Brennan, the Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, sent a statement to members of City Council urging them to vote against the proposal.

Unfortunately, the Bishop’s statement has caused confusion about what conversion therapy is and what the ordinance will do.

This proposed ordinance isn’t about forcing anyone to agree with a political agenda, and it’s not about infringing on a family’s privacy or freedoms. This ordinance is about protecting LGBTQ youth from abuse.

Conversion therapy is a pseudoscientific practice where a medical provider attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Children forced into this abusive practice are sometimes subjected to extreme and horrific procedures like electroshock therapy in hopes of changing their identity.

This abuse is still happening in our state. The overwhelming majority of the medical community rejects the practice and calls it a significant danger to the mental health of our children. One study found that people subjected to this practice are 92 percent more likely to consider suicide. The idea that someone can stop being gay or transgender if only they would just try hard enough has caused incredible suffering.

Too many families have been tricked into believing the lie that their kids can be changed.

Researchers from Brigham Young University, a private university founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, studied the experiences of more than 1,600 church members to measure how effective conversion therapy really is. Even that study found that “sexual orientation is highly resistant to explicit attempts at change.”

The study determined that conversion therapy is “overwhelmingly” ineffective and damaging to patients. Believe it or not, the LDS Church listened to the years of research and supported a new law that banned conversion therapy for minors in Utah.

I’m reminded of the story of Alana Chen, a young Catholic woman from Colorado who ended her life in December of 2019. Alana was a devoted Catholic, and her parents alleged that a local priest subjected Alana to conversion therapy behind their backs and without their permission.

Her mother told reporters that the priest urged 14-year-old Alana not to tell her family he was helping her for fear that they would affirm her identity. Years later, the mother said, other church members would call and pressure her to send Alana to see a well-known, licensed therapist who practiced conversion therapy. The priest and other church officials denied these claims, but Alana’s mother has written at length about her daughter’s suicide, including publishing several detailed diary entries Alana wrote as a teenager.

To be clear, this ordinance would have no impact on any religious leaders and their teachings.

The freedom of religion and freedom of speech are protected by the First Amendment. However, this ordinance would make it very clear to parents that conversion therapy doesn’t work and is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of their children.

In his statement to members of council, Bishop Brennan said that “Parents have the right, and indeed the obligation, to counsel their children with respect to sexual identity and behavior, as they do in other areas of life.”

Nothing in this ordinance will change that. This ordinance will only apply to licensed medical or mental health providers. In fact, it will actually help parents better care for their children by ensuring they don’t fall victim to doctors peddling a false cure for being LGBTQ that every major medical association in the country opposes.

I want to live in a world where we protect all children from abuse, and that means protecting LGBTQ kids from the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. I hope the Bishop takes some time to learn more about conversion therapy and to listen to the stories of young people like Alana Chen.

Because despite our differences, there’s a lot the Bishop and I can agree on.

Later in his statement to city council, he stressed that LGBTQ people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

I completely agree. Conversion therapy is an unjust, discriminatory practice based on the lie that LGBTQ people can be “cured.” I strongly encourage members of the Wheeling City Council to ban licensed medical and mental health providers from practicing it.

Andrew Schneider is the executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization.

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