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Colorado Finally Takes Action Against Conversion Therapy

‘Its Time Has Come’: Lawmakers Predict Colorado Will Be Next State to Ban Conversion Therapy
Senator Steve Fenberg

Advocates -- who say LGBTQ youth are "consistently" put into reparative therapy in the state -- may finally ban the practice there.

A bill banning conversion therapy passed the Colorado House on Tuesday after four previous attempts to pass the legislature failed. If signed into law, House Bill 1129 would represent one of the nation's strongest conversion therapy bans. Echoing legislation tabled in California last year, the discredited "gay cure" therapy would be classified as a "deceptive trade practice" under the "Colorado Consumer Protection Act."

HB 1129 also permits state licensing boards to take disciplinary action against any medical provider who offers conversion therapy to LGBTQ minors under the age of 18.

After a 42-20 vote in the House, the legislation is headed to the Senate for approval. Sen. Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder), the bill's primary sponsor in the legislature's upper chambers, predicted his colleagues would vote in favor of HB 1129.

"I think there's no question we're going to pass this bill," he told The Advocate in a phone conversation. "Its time has come."

Should Colorado vote to outlaw conversion therapy, it would be the 16th state to do so and the second in 2019. Last month, New York passed legislation on the issue after years of obstruction from Republican leadership in the State Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in February 2016 limiting insurers from covering conversion therapists, but it didn't have the power of a statewide ban.

When Democrats won back the New York Senate in the 2018 midterms, it paved a path to finally take comprehensive action to prohibit conversion therapy -- an umbrella term referring to a range of practices from aversion treatment to shock therapy that attempts to turn LGBTQ people heterosexual or cisgender.

Conversion therapy has been condemned by every leading U.S. medical association. The United Nations compared it to "torture."

Colorado is in a similar position to New York. When Republicans held the majority, conservatives in the Colorado Senate would assign any piece of legislation on conversion therapy to the State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, also known as a "kill committee." As Fenberg claimed, bills were "sent there to die."

But following last year's "Blue Wave," Democrats now hold a three-vote advantage in the Senate. That means they get to pick which committee HB 1129 is sent to.

"We actually felt for the last several years that if this bill ever made it to the floor, it would pass with bipartisan support," Fenberg claimed. "The issue is Republican leadership never allowed it to get that vote on the floor."

The Democrat, who has sponsored conversion therapy-related bills for three straight years, predicted a majority of Colorado Senators would support HB 1129.

Others were more cautious in their assessment of the legislation's chances.

Mathew Shurka, a strategist for the Born Perfect campaign with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said it "feels a bit early" to claim HB 1129 is a done deal. Nonetheless, he told The Advocate in an email that a "huge tide has turned in Colorado."

"We all know something is different this year when the governor of the state is an openly gay man," he claimed, referring to Jared Polis's historic victory in the 2018 election.

Although the Associated Press described Polis -- just the nation's second openly LGBTQ governor and the first gay man to hold the office -- as "eager" to sign a conversion therapy ban, he has remained mum on HB 1129. The first-term Democrat's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Advocate on whether he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.

Supporters of HB 1129, however, say the momentum is impossible for Polis to ignore.

When the legislation passed the Colorado House with two-thirds of lawmakers supporting it, HB 1129 also received two "Yes" votes from conservatives: Reps. Colin Larson (R-Littleton) and Hugh McKean (R- Loveland).

"It's not one party versus the other," Brinton said. "Both parties are working to end conversion therapy."

As LGBTQ organizations like One Colorado have worked to build statewide support for a conversion therapy ban, Rep. Brianna Titone (D-Arvada) has seeing this growing movement up close. The state's first openly trans state lawmaker traveled around Colorado asking cities to sign proclamations banning orientation change efforts.

"The idea was... to educate people and garner support for the LGBTQ community," she told The Advocate in an email. "We found many communities didn't know it was legal or didn't know what it was." According to Titone, the campaign "brought the topic to people that hadn't thought about it before."

That grassroots advocacy has paid off. In January, Denver became the first municipality in Colorado to enact a citywide ordinance banning conversion therapy. The measure passed following a unanimous vote of its city council.

Should Colorado follow Denver's lead after the State Senate has its first hearing on HB 1129 in March, LGBTQ advocacy groups say the decision is long overdue. The Trevor Project, a national youth suicide hotline, reportedly receives calls from Colorado often because LGBTQ youth are "consistently" being put into conversion therapy there.

"If this is causing harm, Colorado needs to take action to protect them," Brinton said.

Fenberg credited the work of advocates like Brinton and Shurka -- both of whom are conversion therapy survivors -- in helping bring these stories to light. Shurka, who spent five years trying to "cure" his same-sex attraction, testified before the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee earlier this month. He claimed conversion therapy "broke his family apart."

"I believed it would work, but I didn't understand how horrifying the effect [would be]," Shurka said, in comments first reported by the Colorado Independent.

The committee subsequently voted 8 to 3 in favor of a conversion therapy ban.

"It's sad that it's taken so many years to tell all these stories so that people would hear it, but I'm grateful that those stories have been told and that it's going to result in helping people down the line," Fenberg said.

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