Erie County, N.Y., legislator Patrick Burke is trolling the vice president-elect by introducing a law banning conversion therapy under his name. Known as the Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Childhood Endangerment — or PENCE for short — the legislation, if passed, would make the New York county just one of a few municipalities to block the practice. Currently, five states, D.C., and several cities prohibit the use of conversion therapy on minors.
The name is a direct jab at Mike Pence’s 2000 congressional campaign website, which openly supported the harmful practice of attempting to “change” the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBT minors.
On that website, Pence advocated that federal funding earmarked for “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus” be instead redirected toward “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” The program he wanted to defund, the Ryan White Care Act, provides life-saving resources for people living with HIV.
Burke told WBFO, Buffalo’s NPR affiliate, that given Pence’s impending role in the White House, raising awareness about his antigay history is important.
“Mike Pence is probably going to have the most power of any vice president in the history of our country and he has openly advocated for conversion therapy,” he said. “I want that to sink into people. I want them to realize it’s a serious issue of abuse of children flatly, whether they are gay or not, it’s abuse, then you have a man who is going to have enormous power over all of us, who advocates for it.”
“This practice has no business in our society and really the idea of trying to sexually desensitize children is disgusting and distributing,” Burke added.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a national LGBT youth organization, has been advocating to ban conversion therapy for the past 15 years and applauded the proposed bill in an interview with NBC OUT.
“GLSEN commends Legislator Burke for introducing legislation to ban conversion therapy in Buffalo,” said executive director Eliza Byard. “It is a harmful and discredited practice that uses rejection, shame, and psychological abuse aimed at changing one's sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.”
Renowned organizations like the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American School Counselor Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Medical Association have all come out against conversion therapy. The national GOP, however, continues to stand by it.
The Republican Party’s 2016 platform included what many believed to be a veiled reference to the practice. “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” a plank in the platform read.
Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee and Trump’s appointed White House chief of staff, has claimed that was not the intention of the plank. But far-right leader Tony Perkins, head of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, pushed for the inclusion of conversion therapy in the platform.
“There's states that are trying to restrict what parents can do for loving their children,” he told CNN. “Parents have a better idea I think than legislators or government bureaucrats.”
Republicans in Erie County, however, are taking a different approach. While they recognize that the practice is outdated, abusive, and harmful, they simply don’t believe that conversion therapy is happening in their area. It’s someone else’s problem.
“There has been no use of this technique anywhere in Erie County,” Republican lawmaker Joseph Lorigo told WBFO. “I am 100 percent opposed to this brand of ‘therapy,’ but I am also opposed to attempting to legislate every single issue we can think of, especially a law banning something that has never actually happened in Erie County.”
Last year, New York State lawmakers introduced a bill that would block conversion therapy, but it stalled in the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP. Burke’s bill will be debated next year.