OLYMPIA — Five years ago, Lynnwood lawmaker Marko Liias began an effort in the Legislature to stop licensed therapists from trying to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
His proposal for a work group to examine and potentially regulate those trafficking in disproved practices of converting gay and transgender patients didn’t get a hearing.
He didn’t end his pursuit. On Wednesday, the Democratic state senator beamed as he watched Gov. Jay Inslee sign into law his bill banning conversion therapy and making licensed health care providers subject to punishment if they employ such practices on anyone younger than 18.
“This is a powerful moment,” said Liias, who is gay. “It is critical to send the message to LGBTQ kids that there is nothing wrong with them and they are valued members of our society exactly the way they are.”
Spotlighting the dangers of the practice should deter parents from considering it for their children, Liias said.
“A lot of parents did it because they thought they were helping,” he said. “The science shows you’re not helping, you’re actually hurting them.”
Inslee, in a news conference before the signing of Senate Bill 5722, said conversion therapy is abuse.
“It is inhumane and not acceptable in the state of Washington,” he said.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said there is no credible evidence conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
Rather, he said, it can pose devastating health risks for LGBTQ young people, such as depression, decreased self-esteem, substance abuse, homelessness and even suicidal behavior.
“This is not a legitimate practice. This is debunked science,” he said. “This (law) should send a loud and clear message that the practice some call conversion therapy is child abuse.”
Conversion therapy is an umbrella term for a wide array of approaches that typically involve encouraging people to change or conceal who they are, convincing them that their sexual orientation or gender expression is a source of shame or danger.
The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and American Medical Association are among the organizations that have decried the practice.
The new state law defines conversion therapy as any effort to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity using psychological or spiritual interventions.
Licensed health care providers who employ such practices on youths younger than 18 could be cited for unprofessional conduct and sanctioned with fines, license revocation or suspension.
It’s not known how many people in Washington migh be practicing conversion therapy on young people. Supporters of the bill pledged to look for and file complaints on those they can find.
The law does not apply to churches or individual clergy, unless the person is also a licensed health care provider.
In 2013 Liias, then a state representative, authored a bill to have the state Department of Health convene a work group to examine and potentially regulate efforts of licensed and unlicensed health care providers to change the sexual orientation of patients younger than 18.
In 2015, his bill prohibiting the use of “aversive therapy” was passed unanimously in the Republican-controlled Senate. But the Democrat majority in the House made changes and when it came back to the Senate, the GOP declined to vote on the revised version.
The bill signed into law Wednesday was introduced in 2017 but didn’t get a hearing. With Senate Democrats in the majority in 2018, it moved through quickly.
Along the way, Liias said one of the notable moments in the legislative process came a couple of years ago with the political conversion of Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, from an opponent to a staunch supporter.
Last month, when the state House debated and passed the Senate bill for the final time, DeBolt spoke on the floor about what changed his mind.
He said he was naive about the practice until hearing a young man testify of the therapies he endured.
“No one should go through what he went through,” DeBolt said in his floor speech. “I equate them to torture. Any time anybody is tortured is wrong.”
Senate Bill 5722 wound up passing by margins of 66-32 in the House and 33-16 in the Senate.
When it takes effect in June, Washington will join Oregon, California, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois, Vermont, New York, New Mexico, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, which have laws or regulations banning the use of such therapies on youth, according to the Human Rights Campaign.