by Ben Gierhart
In 2019, The Trevor Project, the country’s leading organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people, conducted a landmark national survey. This first-of-its-kind survey is the compilation of data from the responses of over 34,000 LGBTQ young people under 25 from all 50 states, and the results are sobering. According to the survey, 39 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months. Seventy-one percent reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two consecutive weeks in the past year. Two in three LGBTQ youth reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, with youth who have undergone conversion therapy more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not.
In a culture where it’s easy to believe that the worst of heteronormative culture has passed, it is stunning to know that not only is conversion therapy still being practiced, it is still such a devastating and sometimes savage practice. Tanner Mobley, former advocacy intern and director at Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky, agrees: “Learning that 23 percent of LGBTQ youth who undergo conversion therapy attempt suicide, I felt that I couldn’t wait around for someone to take on the fight to protect Kentucky’s youth from these dangerous practices.”
Prior to joining the campaign for the survey, Mobley admits that he naively believed that conversion therapy was a thing of the past. It wasn’t until he heard Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, recount his experience with conversion therapy that he learned the truth. In 2017, Mobley and Austin Adam, a friend of Mobley’s who was similarly inspired, reached out to the Fairness Campaign for guidance on submitting legislation.
What started as two co-sponsors on their bill grew to five the following year. “I created a Facebook event for folks interested in forming an organization to protect youth from conversion therapy, and in November 2018 a group of lawyers, mental health professionals, students and faith leaders came together to form Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky (BCTK),” reports Mobley.
As a result of Mobley and BCTK’s core organizers’ hard work, Representative Lisa Willner and Senator Morgan McGarvey supported BCTK’s bills in 2019 with a record number of 20 House co-sponsors and three Senate co-sponsors.
In the time since BCTK began, the Kentucky Youth Law Project has become BCTK’s fiscal sponsor. With their aid, BCTK has established a board, created a social media presence and started raising awareness on the issue of conversion therapy. BCTK has also successfully gained endorsements from over 50 organizations including the Kentucky Medical Association, the Kentucky Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers KY and the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, all huge wins for the grassroots organization.
BCTK hopes to ride that momentum into the 2020 state legislative session with four years of experience under their belt as well as a host of creative strategies to implement.
One such strategy is the inception of the Ban Conversion Therapy Ambassador program. “Ambassadors help us raise awareness through gathering petition signatures, tabling, gathering data, and other important work,” says Mobley. These positions are available to anyone living in the state of Kentucky who are able to commit one to two hours a week for at least six months.
BCTK’s goals for the future are both logistical and legislative. They are currently seeking to expand their marketing team and bring on a faith organizer to help get Kentucky faith communities involved in their work, a major shot in the arm as the majority of the facilities and institutions that offer conversion therapy are religious or faith-based in some capacity.
Mobley is also optimistic that the latest iteration of the BCTK bill will receive bipartisan support. “…nearly half of the laws passed to protect LGBTQ youth from these harmful practices … were signed by GOP governors, including states like New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Nevada,” he says.
As for the bill itself, per Mobley, “It would prohibit state-licensed mental health professionals from engaging in efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a young person under 18 years of age in Kentucky.” The language is firm in its aims, but what’s most remarkable about the bill is perhaps what is doesn’t do.
There is nothing in the bill that prohibits competent adults from seeking conversion therapy. BCTK’s position isn’t that they believe conversion therapy is beneficial for adults, but the strategy is that the bill’s specificity may appeal to the values of conservatives who may consider the constitutional right for adults to make their own decisions regarding treatment they believe to be necessary paramount. “Because the danger posed by conversion therapy is great, BCTK is focused on protecting children, youth and vulnerable adults,” adds Mobley.
The tactics involved in conversion therapy range from bizarre to nightmarish. It is an antiquated, ineffective, deadly practice, and it is time that the citizens of Kentucky unite to relegate it to a sad footnote in the history books. With movements like Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky active in our state, that dream is truly, finally possible.
To learn more about Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky, apply to become a BCTK Ambassador (applications open on September 15) and donate to the Kentucky Youth Law Project, visit https://banconversiontherapyky.org/.
To read The Trevor Project’s 2019 survey, visit https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2019/?section=Introduction.