Indiana legislators this week introduced a measure that would ban conversion therapy for minors by licensed counselors.
Senate Bill 32, authored by Democratic state Sen. J.D. Ford, would prohibit efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone younger than 18.
Therapists who violate the order would be subject to disciplinary action, including possible loss of their licenses.
"I hope my friends on the other side of the aisle see this isn't a partisan issue. It's a lifesaving issue," said Ford, the first openly gay lawmaker in Indiana. "I don't want to hear 'Oh, we can't give your bill a hearing, because we have to deal with Covid-19.' Yes, the pandemic is a huge priority, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time."
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy or ex-gay therapy, has been widely discredited by an overwhelming majority of health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and even the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
LGBTQ Americans who have been subjected to conversion therapy are nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression and eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, according to GLAAD.
To date, 20 states and more than 80 cities have outlawed attempts to change the sexual orientations or gender identities of minors. Except in Utah, most bans have been passed by Democratic-controlled legislatures.
Passing such a ban in Indiana would be a turning point for the state, said Drew Anderson, a board member of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats.
"We can set a standard for other states that people view as Republican about being successful on LGBTQ issues," he said.
It would also distance Indiana from the anti-LGBTQ reputation it gained under Vice President Mike Pence, who was governor from 2013 through 2016 and represented it in Congress from 2001 through 2012.
As a member of Congress, Pence supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and he opposed both the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have protected LGBTQ workers, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
As governor, he signed the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which some interpreted as allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. The law, passed in 2015, sparked numerous boycotts and led Angie's List to cancel a $40 million expansion into Indiana.
And as Donald Trump's vice president, Pence is part of an administration that has opposed nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans, banned transgender service members and allowed child welfare agencies to reject same-sex prospective parents.
"Pence has attacked us at every point and put such a negative cloud around the state because of his own views," Anderson said. "We're doing as much to show people that Indiana is welcoming to all communities."
Activists have claimed that Pence also endorsed conversion therapy, pointing to language on a 2000 campaign website calling for federal AIDS funds to go to "institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior." In 2018, Pence's press secretary, Alyssa Farah, insisted that he "has never supported conversion therapy and doesn't support it now."
Indiana legislators have sought to outlaw conversion therapy before: In 2019, Democrats introduced a ban that failed to get a hearing in the General Assembly, where Republicans still hold supermajorities in both chambers.
A key difference since then is the rise of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to national prominence. Buttigieg, the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate, went from a dark horse to a front-runner, winning the most delegates in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Last month, President-elect Joe Biden announced his intention to nominate Buttigieg to be transportation secretary.
"The work that Pete's done, just running for president, has increased LGBTQ acceptance in Indiana tenfold," Anderson said. "Finally all these people know someone who is gay, even if they didn't before."
Buttigieg did not respond to a request for comment about the conversion therapy bill. In 2019, he asserted that being gay was something he was born with.
"If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade," he said at a 2019 LGBTQ Victory Fund fundraiser. "And that's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator."
In some ways, the culture has increasingly moved away from conversion therapy: Ex-gay leaders like John Paulk have called it "debunked and discredited" and condemned its apparent presence in the 2016 Republican Party platform, which stated support for the "right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children."
Last year, Instagram announced that it would refuse ads and ban content promoting gay "cures."
In December, more than 370 religious leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu, signed a declaration calling for an end to "all attempts to change, suppress or erase a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression."
Conservative groups argue that conversion therapy bans violate the First Amendment and inhibit parents' rights to do what they think is best for their children.
"We are very opposed to the idea of banning what people can hear," Micah Clark, president of the American Family Association of Indiana, said after the state's 2019 ban was introduced, according to The Indianapolis Star. "I don't think we should ban what parents want for their kids or what kids want. ... It's a gag order against counselors."
In 2019, a federal judge struck down a two-year-old conversion therapy ban in Tampa, Florida, ruling that regulation of psychotherapy "is a state, not a municipal concern."
Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based evangelical legal advocacy group, led the legal challenge against the Tampa ordinance, as well as unsuccessful efforts to overturn a statewide ban on conversion therapy in Maryland.
It also fought a ban in Boca Raton, Florida, which the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down in November. In a 2-1 decision, the court sided with two therapists who challenged ordinances in Boca Raton and Palm Beach County that barred licensed counselors from "treating minors with any counseling, practice or treatment performed with the goal of changing an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity."
In the majority opinion, Judges Britt Grant and Barbara Lagoa argued, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
This week, Republicans in the Indiana Statehouse introduced a separate bill that would prohibit licensed health care professionals from assisting minors in their gender transitions.
Sponsored by Republican state Sens. Dennis Kruse and Jeff Raatz, SB 224 would prohibit treatments intended to "change, reinforce, or affirm a minor's gender identity when the identity is inconsistent with the minor's biological sex."
It would also outlaw efforts to "change, reinforce, or affirm a minor's perception of the minor's own sexual attraction or sexual behavior."
Kruse and Raatz declined to comment about whether their bill is also intended to ban conversion therapy.