Pa. took a step toward limiting ‘conversion therapy’ — but the traumatic practice isn’t actually banned

What Gov. Wolf’s decree means for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.

The LGBTQ flag flying alongside Pennsylvania's

The LGBTQ flag flying alongside Pennsylvania's

Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr
michaelawinberg-2020-2

A disproven form of “therapy” that classifies LGBTQ identity as a mental illness and insists it can be cured suffered a blow via a new executive order signed on Tuesday by Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf.

The new decree is a step toward banning the scientifically debunked practice known as “conversion therapy” — an attempt to change a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression.


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“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” Wolf said in a statement. “This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it.”

Wolf’s executive order has been framed as a ban in some coverage, but it’s actually not. It’s mostly a regulation that prevents taxpayer dollars from going toward the harmful practice.

So private providers can still technically practice conversion therapy. And the executive order doesn’t mention faith-based institutions at all — some of which practice what is essentially conversion therapy as part of religious doctrine.

Meanwhile, some towns and counties in Pennsylvania had already banned conversion therapy locally. That means, in PA, whether it’s legal depends where exactly you live.

Long story short: This has all gotten very complicated. If you want to understand Pennsylvania’s new rules around conversion therapy, we broke it all down for you:

What is conversion therapy?

It’s basically a form of therapy that attempts to change your sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. In the United States, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy — more than half of them as children.

There’s no scientific evidence that it works, and the practice has been rejected by essentially every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades.

Per the American Medical Association: “Underlying these techniques is the assumption that any non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities are mental disorders, and that sexual orientation and gender identity can and should be changed. This assumption is not based on medical and scientific evidence.”

What does it actually entail?

That depends on the institution where you’re receiving it. It’s usually some combo of medication, talk therapy, aversion techniques and behavioral modification. Oftentimes faith-based instruction is also used in conversion therapy.

How does conversion therapy affect people?

Personal accounts of these practices show they are often traumatic and cruel.

Native Philadelphian Victoria Brownworth wrote in the Philly Gay News that in conversion therapy, she was forced to vomit while looking at pictures of women embracing. For hours, staff would repeat to her that she was not actually a lesbian.

“Yet none of it made me straight,” Brownworth wrote. “A few months later I attempted suicide. That is how shattered I was by the experience and the scars it had left.”

The long-term effects on mental and physical health are severe. Data from GLAAD shows that people who undergo conversion therapy are:

  • 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide
  • 5.9 times more likely report high levels of depression
  • 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs
  • 3.4 times more likely to be at high risk of HIV and STDs

Wait, so all that was still legal in Pennsylvania?

Sure was! Pennsylvania has never had a law on the books banning LGBTQ conversion therapy.

But it’s banned now?

Not exactly. The executive order signed by Wolf isn’t really a ban.

It directs state agencies to “discourage” conversion therapy to all licensed providers and commerical insurers in Pennsylvania. It promises to investigate whether state funds are being used for conversion therapy, and to offer Pennsylvanians a method to report the practice when they encounter it.

The executive order also sets the intention to create a credible resource list of mental health treatment options for LGBTQ people.

The order doesn’t define any penalties for providers who do practice conversion therapy, and it  doesn’t mention faith-based institutions at all.

Is there anywhere in PA that does ban conversion therapy?

Actually, yes. Even though the statewide executive order is mealy-mouthed, some towns, cities and counties have been much more clear.

In Pennsylvania, 12 cities and two counties have statutes or ordinances that prohibit conversion therapy for minors. Philly became one of them in 2017, banning the practice via a City Council bill introduced by Councilmember Mark Squilla.

Other PA spots that have canceled conversion therapy include Allegheny County, Bethlehem and State College,

What happens if you break the rules?

The statewide executive order doesn’t actually mention any penalties for practicing conversion therapy.

In Philadelphia, however, a medical professional who practices conversion therapy can be fined up to $2,000 and lose their license.

Is it like this in other states?

It’s a mixed bag. 20 states and the District of Columbia have already passed total bans on conversion therapy. On the other end of the spectrum, 21 states have no state law or policy on the practice.

Six states, including Pennsylvania, have enacted partial bans. And the three remaining states are currently duking it out in court.

Why isn’t it just totally illegal here too?

Legislators have tried. Philly state Rep. Brian Sims has been working on banning conversion therapy for almost a decade.

But it’s been languishing in committee for years with no resolution in sight.

Are there places still practicing it locally?

It would appear so.

One example is the Restored Hope Network, which is headquartered in Colorado and has a branch in Lancaster, Pa. Its website doesn’t use the words “conversion therapy” explicitly — but has dozens of stories from staffers who claim to have successfully changed their sexuality or gender identity through faith. Some of its events mention moving “beyond LGBTQ.”

In 2015, the group hosted a conference in central Pennsylvania seeking to “repair” LGBTQ people.

Since the Restored Hope Network is a faith institution, it likely wouldn’t be affected by the new executive order.

What’s next?

The thing about an executive order is that any future governor can choose to keep it or throw it out. So if the state legislature doesn’t pass a ban, it’ll be up to our state’s next chief executive to decide.

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