Photograph of a protest sign reading "Conversion Therapy is Violence"

Op-Ed: The Second Coming

Executive 2022-2 and the State of Conversion Therapy in Pennsylvania

Today marks almost a month since Gov. Tom Wolf signed an Executive Order against conversion therapy—and I’m still struggling to celebrate. 

     Executive Order 2022-2 has been characterized in national news and private conversations as a “conversion therapy ban.” True, Gov. Wolf has directed all Commonwealth agencies to discourage conversion therapy, banning state funds, programs, contracts, or other resources going to the practice. He has even directed state agencies to promote evidence-based practices and updated policies that protect LGBTQIA+ Pennsylvanians. 

     But we must keep in mind the specific nature of this “ban.” This Executive Order is only secure under the Wolf administration; any future governor could easily override it. No penalties for those who violate the order have been outlined, either. As queer folk, it is difficult not to instinctually view this order as temporary and idealistic. 

     Still, we must acknowledge the immense potential of this order. The Williams Institute at UCLA predicted in 2019 that 16,000 LGBTQIA+ youth would undergo some form of conversion therapy by a licensed healthcare professional in states which did not have ordinances preventing its practice. Pennsylvania’s alliance with twenty-five other states in partially or fully banning conversion therapy is a massive triumph. 

     Executive Order 2022-2 has succeeded as such in banning what I understand as “first-wave” conversion therapy: “medical” institutions. Their notorious practices have included hypnosis, electroconvulsive shocks, lobotomies, and even castration. Following the national decriminalization of homosexuality and the widespread declassification of homosexuality as a medical pathology, the turn of the 21st century saw a shift in the state of conversion therapy from medical institutions to religious organizations.  

Unlicensed individuals gained thousands of dollars from their businesses, leaving survivors without faith and with alarming rates of anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors.

     These institutions, like Love in Action and Exodus, were outright closet cases. They fronted themselves as “ex-gay” and “reparative” organizations—and ran to far-off, isolated locations. Unlicensed individuals gained thousands of dollars from their businesses, leaving survivors without faith and with alarming rates of anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors. In the past decade, many leaders have shut down their organizations and even come out as LGBTQIA+. A former chairman of Exodus even admitted, “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.” These institutions consistently go against the very promise they feed to their victims. Conversion therapy has become a discredited and dying “therapy;” as Wolf called it, a “traumatic practice based on junk science.” I call it quackery. 

     This is where I see the “second wave” of conversion therapy resurrecting. 57,000 other LGBTQIA+ youth were predicted to be exposed to another form of conversion therapy: Religiously-protected institutions—an even more “closeted” form of conversion therapy—have become the “second-wave” site for 82% of the practice. Their methods have included “talk therapy,” tracking familial sin, public shame, and exorcisms. Account after account, survivors have shared stories of similar damage to psychological states as those from the first wave. These institutions can function invisibly and legally, though. The First Amendment right to religious freedom protects these institutions from any consequence of Gov. Wolf’s Executive Order. 

57,000 other LGBTQIA+ youth were predicted to be exposed to another form of conversion therapy: Religiously-protected institutions—an even more “closeted” form of conversion therapy—have become the “second-wave” site for 82% of the practice.

     We now understand conversion therapy has not been banned, but limited—and is still very much alive. State funding has been banned from public conversion therapy organizations; however private funding has and will continue to go towards these religiously-protected institutions. Conversion therapy is a business that costs our country $9.28 billion a year. This invisible practice surrounds us, and so do its victims. 

     This being said, we must resist our anger for joy. Far too often, queer history has been defined by loss and neglected moments of progress. We must approach this Executive Order as both a public ban and a private approval. It is cause for critique, but also for celebration. 

     We must remember August 13th as a historic day. Historic for more than the ban on “first-wave” conversion therapy; Gov. Wolf put down his foot and told our community: “I want LGBTQIA+ youth and individuals across Pennsylvania to know that I stand with you. I see you, I respect you, and I support you.” I never thought this possible—did you? So many of our lives could have been saved. Same-sex marriage legalization preempted far lower rates of LGBTQIA+ suicide attempts, especially among youth. One affirming adult in a young person’s life makes them 40% less likely to attempt suicide. We can only imagine how this statewide recognition has not only rescued but empowered queer lives across the Commonwealth. This is especially true for trans and gender-nonconforming youth, who are often neglected in these conversations and disproportionately threatened by this practice. 

     True, “second-wave” conversion therapy is still an invisible threat—but not an invincible one. Twenty states and D.C. have banned conversion therapy for minors. They have cited either LGBTQIA+ youth’s inability to consent due to lack of brain development or the aforementioned mental disparities of conversion therapy survivors. Look to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Scranton, Eerie, State College, Reading—they have all done the same. Sixty-five counties in Pennsylvania have yet to do so. While it is often unclear whether or not these bans include religious institutions, they at least include convictions and revisions.  

     National news always will begin with a private conversation. It’s how one survivor’s account can turn into Executive Order 2022-2, how a limitation becomes known as a ban, or how a governor can rouse a generation of LGBTQIA+ folk. Connection comes through conversation—and this is how we construct progress. 

     Listen to and amplify the stories of conversion therapy survivors. Over 680,000 LGBTQ+ adults have predictably underwent conversion therapy—all you need is one. Relay statistics. Warn those you love about sites of “second-wave” conversion therapy. Call out the Executive Order for what it is: a limitation. Call it out for what it lacks: convictions. Call out conversion therapy for what it is not: therapy. But most of all, call upon your community to celebrate each moment of liberation. 

     Call upon your community to second what else must come.