New York City recently passed one of the nation’s harshest bans on so-called conversion therapy. Not yet signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the law would bar professional therapists from counseling homosexual and transgender people to accept their God-given sexuality and gender. The New York City Council passed the bill on Nov. 30 by a vote of 43-2. De Blasio scheduled a hearing for the measure earlier this week.
According to the bill, any therapist who works with clients to help them change their sexual orientation or to conform their gender identity to the “sex of such individual that was recorded at birth” would be subject to a $1,000 fine for a first offense, $5,000 for a second, and $10,000 for each subsequent one. Previous state and city laws have banned conversion therapy for minors, but New York City’s ban includes all patients: children or adults. Advocates for the law argue it protects individuals from coercion.
“Conversion therapy is barbaric and inhumane, and right here in New York City we will continue to be the model for acceptance across the nation as we ban conversion therapy once and for all,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the Council and the bill’s primary sponsor.
The measure carves out two exceptions, one implied and one explicit. First, the proposed law only condemns someone who charges a fee for counseling, so someone who provides counseling free of charge such as a religious figure—pastor, priest, or other—is exempt. Second, the bill does not condemn someone who provides counseling meant to assist an individual undergoing gender transition or counseling that provides acceptance and support for a person’s identity exploration and development.
In other words, according to Cathy Ruse, a senior legal fellow at the Family Research Council, you can help someone moving toward a homosexual orientation or transgender identity, but not the other way around.
Ruse argued that the measure muffles the free speech rights of therapists and patients who do not agree with the Council’s view of human sexuality and gender, “playing politics with the private therapy choices of grown adults”—something no governing body has done until now.
Far from protecting them from “coercion,” the bill cuts people off from the lifeline of therapy when they need it the most, Ruse said. For example, a therapist could be fined for speaking with a lesbian woman who has started her transition to live as a man but is not happy and wants to identify as a woman again, other than to encourage her in her male identity.
The ban is based on the idea that conversion therapy is fraudulent and unscientific, and used on vulnerable individuals struggling to change something that will never change. But that view is itself unscientific. Even pro-LGBT doctors have embraced the idea that sexuality can be fluid. And the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that most children who identity with a gender other than their biological sex will come to accept their bodies and stop identifying as transgender.
Given de Blasio’s support for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 state ban on conversion therapy for youth, observers expect he will approve the city’s measure, which would become law 120 days after he signs it.
Something that could give him pause is the experience of his wife of 23 years: Chirlane McCray has openly acknowledged that she spent years of her life identifying as a lesbian. In 2013, Essence interviewed McCray, 34 years after the magazine published her essay titled “I Am a Lesbian.” In the interview, McCray refused the label of bisexual. When asked if she was still attracted to women, she said, “I’m married. I’m monogamous, but I’m not dead, and neither is Bill.”