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Ending Conversion Therapy in Paradise

Ending Conversion Therapy in Paradise

AP Photo

Tireless equality advocate Michael Golojuch Jr. details the Herculean effort to ban so-called ex-gay therapy in a state that many forget is the home of evangelicals and Mormons.

In 2014 we were fresh off passing marriage equality in Hawaii when House Bill 1789 was introduced in the state House to ban conversion therapy for minors, the dangerous practice of trying to turn LGBT kids straight or cisgender (nontrans). The bill received a hearing in the House Education Committee, but it failed to even get a vote. The LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii realized we needed to do more education for our fellow Democrats about what exactly conversion therapy was and why the Aloha State needed to end it.

For the 2014 Oahu County Democratic Convention, I introduced language to add banning conversion therapy to our county's platform, which passed with almost no resistance. Then we turned our sights to platform of the state Democratic Party.

There was lively debate about this addition within the platform committee, but they voted unanimously for this addition. The LGBT Caucus asked our members and allies who were delegates to the state convention to help educate their fellow delegates to help ensure passage. When the amended platform went to the floor of the state convention it passed unanimously.

I was cochair of both the Oahu County and state platform committees, so I was able to respond to all questions regarding conversion therapy right away and refute the misinformation that a couple of the members brought up.

There was a huge push by the evangelical churches in Hawaii, including the Mormons, to block the ban. They hit us with most of what they had left in their arsenal. They had their people send in repetitive testimony. Legislators were threatened that they would lose their seats if they supported the ban. We heard this during the special session for marriage equality, just a few months earlier. When the elections rolled around in the fall, not one person who voted for marriage equality lost their seat.

Ultimately, we didn't have the same level of support we had seen in the special session. We did have some support outside of the LGBT community -- it was not enough.

Two years later, in 2016, we have not one but four states and Washington, D.C., that banned conversion therapy (and more evidence of its very serious dangers). Those bans have been court-tested and approved by the Supreme Court, and have the support of President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, along with many recognized medical organizations. In February the Democratic Party of Hawaii added passing the ban as a top legislative priority for 2016 by a unanimous vote.

Unfortunately, a couple of local LGBT groups have chosen to sit on the sidelines. To offset that, we have a broader coalition that includes the support of the State of Hawaii's Department of Health and the Hawaii State Teachers' Association -- Hawaii's public schools teachers union -- other local therapist organizations, and national LGBT groups. The amazing part of the teachers union's backing is that it supported the bill even when the teachers were subjected to disciplinary action by the Department of Education, which according to several DOE officials is unheard of.

The House hearing did give us a look into who the opposition was going to be and what lies they were going to try to peddle. The opposition is being led by Hawaii's former lieutenant governor (a Republican) and two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, Duke Aiona. The opposition is a lot smaller than in 2014 -- no official Mormon presence -- just Hawaii Family Advocates (Aiona's group), Hawaii Family Forum (a coalition of evangelical churches led by the Roman Catholic Church), the Roman Catholic Church, and a handful of ill-informed individuals.

We used this information to tear their unsupported arguments to shreds at the joint hearing on Senate Bill 2615 at the Senate's Committees on Education, and Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health. Some opponents to the ban argued, "The bill interferes with parents' rights to raise their kids."

There are a lot of laws on the books that "interfere" with the way parents raise their kids, from mandating seat belts for all and booster seats for minors under 70 pounds; requiring lifesaving vaccinations; getting an education; requiring Christian Scientists to get their children lifesaving medical treatment; and outlawing child abuse.

Every recognized medical and mental health association has rejected conversion therapy as unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous. So to inflict conversion therapy on minors is child abuse.

Another argument: "This bill stops therapists from helping minors that may be struggling with their sexual orientation; gender identity; and/or gender expression."

This bill does not bar anyone from seeking therapy with regard to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression, plain and simple. It does bar therapists from putting their patients in danger by exposing them to the disavowed conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy is nothing but coercion, forcing the minor to reject who they are and how they were born. That is not the role of a therapist, especially when dealing with minors. The false idea behind conversion therapy is that there can be a guaranteed predetermined outcome from the therapy sessions -- changing a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression.

Some argued, "That this bill is unconstitutional on religious grounds and will have 'unintended consequences.'"

The legal language found in the bill mirrors what appears in the laws of California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. Many of those laws have been challenged in court, all the way up to the Supreme Court, which has rejected all challenges. It should be noted that none of those laws have religious exemptions and they have passed constitutional muster.

It is when those few priests, pastors, and other persons of the cloth who are licensed therapists decide to hang a shingle and offer therapy that they would fall under the jurisdiction of this law.

As for "unintended consequences," this seems to be the go-to phrase by the opposition to anything that would bring justice and equality to the LGBT community. They used this phrase constantly during the battle for marriage equality and to this day there has not been one "unintended consequence" by bringing marriage equality to the Aloha State.

Another claim: "That somehow this bill will bring out unlicensed therapists."

We already have laws on the books to handle unlicensed therapists. If the opponents are really concerned about unlicensed therapists, then they should advocate for a stronger punishment be placed on the books.

And this statement was heard: "There is a direct correlation between being LGBT and drug abuse."

This is false -- there is no study that shows a correlation between being LGBT and drug abuse. There is, however, a direct link between a member of the LGBT community going through conversion therapy and drug abuse, suicide, and the complete list of other adverse side effects.

SB 2615 passed with the sole Republican voting against the bill in both committees. They did amend the bill taking the public teachers out, even with the teachers union's support. This was an amendment we could live with, as any teacher giving therapy at a public school is required to be a licensed therapist and would still be covered by the bill.

The next hearing wasin the Senate's Committee on Judiciary and Labor, where the opposition failed to show up but still submitted testimony. The bill was amended again in committee to simplify the language and it passed with only Sen. Mike Gabbard, Hawaii's version of Fred Phelps, voting against it.

SB 2615 then went to the Senate floor where it passed with a vote of 22-2, which is huge. It is currently referred to three committees in the House, but efforts are under way to get it referred to two committees, given the amendments made in the Senate.

To help that process along we launched a petition on and it already has 500+ signers in one week. To put that in perspective, it took us over two weeks to get that number on a petition calling on Gov. Neil Abercrombie to call the special session. We are extremely hopeful that this bill will pass and make Hawaii the fifth state to ban conversion therapy.

MICHAEL GOLOJUCH JR. is a longtime advocate for equality in Hawaii and chairman of the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

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