The Milwaukee Common Council Tuesday voted to ban a controversial therapy that aims to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, a practice known as “conversion therapy.”
Aldermen vote 12-2 in favor of the ban, with one abstention.
Supporters and opponents of the ban packed Tuesday’s meeting at City Hall, with opponents occasionally shouting “Amen!”
“This is real,” said Ald. Cavalier Johnson, the measure’s lead sponsor. “This affects real people.”
A Milwaukee council committee approved the measure earlier this month.
Opponents said Tuesday they didn’t have advance notice to gather opposition to the measure.
Johnson introduced the ordinance to ban the practice for anyone under 18. He called it a “proactive piece of legislation” to address the practice that is commonly tied to religious values.
He stressed Tuesday that it did not affect free therapy or counseling.
But Ald. Bob Donovan, who opposes the measure, said it was government overreach. He said supporters “did not make the case that this problem even exists in Milwaukee.”
Last year, state lawmakers proposed a bill to penalize mental health providers or counselors who performed conversion therapy, but it did not get a hearing or committee vote. Several other states and cities have passed similar bans.
Major medical and mental health organizations have condemned conversion therapy, said Tony Snell, a member of the city’s Equal Rights Commission.
A 2009 American Psychological Association report concluded such practices can pose critical health risks to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, including depression, substance abuse, stress and suicidal thoughts.
A 2015 federal report found no existing research that such practices can change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation and instead found those practices often are “coercive, can be harmful and should not be part of behavioral health treatment.”
The city proposal went before the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee where aldermen heard support for the ban from LGBTQ advocates and mental health experts from Alverno College and Mount Mary University.
Natalie Zanoni, director of client and program services at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, read a statement from a 29-year-old graduate student in Milwaukee who experienced conversation therapy.
The student came out as gay to his parents at age 16 and a youth pastor suggested Exodus International, a national conversion therapy nonprofit that has since been shut down.
“But what is worst of all is the emotional and spiritual damage it caused, the deep-rooted shame that came along with attempting to change my orientation,” he wrote.
Several council members asked about the prevalence of conversion therapy practices in Milwaukee.
Snell said they are present in the metro area but said it’s difficult to quantify.
“A lot of these folks who have gone through this are living in the shadows,” he said, later adding, “I think we need to send the message proactively and say this won’t be tolerated here in the city of Milwaukee.”
The committee previously voted 2 to 0 to approve the measure. Ald. Chantia Lewis and Ald. Jose Perez offered strong support, each signing on as co-sponsors and voting in favor of it. Ald. Mark Borkowski and Ald. Bob Donovan abstained from voting at the committee level.
The proposed ban carries a fine between $500 to $1,000 for each violation. The Milwaukee Police Department would have the power to enforce the ordinance, if it’s approved.