Shelved bill banning LGBTQ discrimination, conversion therapy sparks debate

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Advocates for LGBTQ rights and defenders of religious freedom faced off during a Thursday hearing over a bill proposing to ban discrimination and conversion therapy. 

The bill will not be moving forward, assured House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who co-sponsored the bipartisan measure. Instead, the hearing was intended to provide a forum to discuss its strengths and weaknesses. 

“This bill will not be voted today. This bill is not on a committee agenda. It’s not going to do an end run and be brought to the floor. It is an opportunity for us to lay a benchmark of some type of civil discourse where we can talk as brothers and sisters with different points of view,” said Bowers, a Mesa Republican. 

House Bill 2802 makes licensed health providers offering conversion therapy to minors subject to discipline from their state licensing boards, effectively banning the practice in an official capacity. Parents and unlicensed religious figures, however, are exempt. 

The bill also makes it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ persons in housing, employment and places of “public accommodation”. Religious buildings and schools, and places in which separation by sex is common, like fitness centers or spas, aren’t included in that prohibition. 

Rep. Cesar Chavez, D-Phoenix, objected to packaging so many different goals in one bill. Its varied contents led to a host of concerns from visitors. 

For some critics, enshrining sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s non-discrimination laws is a step too far. Rep. Quang Nguyen, R-Prescott, worried that it would lead to unfounded lawsuits against employers. He questioned whether it would give LGBTQ employees too much leverage against employers trying to fire them for inadequate performance. 

Kimber Lanning, the CEO of Local First Arizona, which advocates for diversity and inclusivity in Arizona businesses, rebutted Nguyen’s concerns. She had been the subject of two employee lawsuits in the past and said that the burden of proof is on employers to provide evidence of the employee’s inefficiency. Her own records helped her win both cases, she said. 

Lanning spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would benefit Arizona’s economy. 

“Inclusion is a vital component of economic resilience, economic development and future growth of the state of Arizona. When everyone is able to work hard, participate and contribute equally without barriers, our businesses, communities and economies grow stronger,” she said. 

Lanning noted that the LGBTQ community has a buying power of $3.7 trillion globally nationwide, and they overwhelmingly choose to spend that in welcoming areas. Missing out on those funds, she said, is a costly mistake. 

Several members of the business community echoed Lanning in saying that inclusivity is instrumental to Arizona’s economic success. 

Chris Camacho, CEO and president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, which works to attract businesses, said non-discrimination policies have become a significant factor for companies deciding where to open locations. It’s especially important to tech companies, he said. He warned that the preponderance of inclusive non-discrimination policies nationwide puts Arizona at a disadvantage, because companies always have options. 

Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a Christian lobbying group with a history of supporting anti-LGBTQ public policy, disputed this view and said the free market imposes social sanctions on discrimination. Regulating it through legislation is unnecessary, she said. 

For Herrod, the most concerning part of the bill are its restrictions on conversion therapy, which she termed “talk therapy” and said has become much more reputable and supportive. She said the bill blocks access to therapy for parents and children seeking to overcome their same-sex attraction or gender identity non-conformity. 

“(It) penalizes the child who disagrees with a government sanctioned understanding of human sexuality and denies that child treatment,” she said. 

The bill allows for counseling from family members and unlicensed individuals acting in a religious capacity, but outlaws licensed, professional therapists from providing the service offered by organizations like Love and Truth Network, which Herrod touted. 

“This bill doesn’t restrict or regulate kitchen table type conversations. …(What this bill) is getting at fundamentally is: Don’t use the tools and the auspices of psychology and psychotherapy to engage in what amounts to deeply abusive practices,” said Tim Schultz, president of the First Amendment Partnership, a religious freedom advocacy organization. 

Several advocates of conversion therapy spoke about how it helped them work through unwanted same-sex attraction after experiencing traumatic sexual abuse as children. There is no evidence to suggest that sexual abuse in childhood contributes to sexual orientation, but rather studies show that LGBTQ youth are more at risk of sexual abuse

Jeremiah Sheppard said he experienced incredible anguish and suicidal thoughts during his teenage years due to same-sex attraction that was incongruent with his moral values after childhood sexual abuse. Sheppard is the director of operations at Love and Truth Network, which promises people struggling the “restoration of their God-given identity” and “sexual wholeness”. 

“I’m fully convinced that if I had sought help, only to be told that OK I was gay, that’s just who I am and that’s all I’m allowed to do, accept that as final and there’s nothing else that can be done and any other discussion with a therapist outside of that is completely off limits — that might’ve been the final nail in my emotional coffin. That might’ve pushed me over the edge,” he said. 

Sheppard said he never underwent conversion therapy as a child, and did not, in fact, seek therapeutic help until well into adulthood. He said he had never been coerced by his therapist or experienced harmful counseling techniques. 

Bowers acknowledged that the conversion therapy portion of the bill was the most controversial, but that his intent was to address the horrific practices he’d heard about. He said he’s willing to edit the language in the bill to include therapy that, at the request of the patient, sought to supress same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, in recognition of critics who objected to the part of the bill that prohibits any treatment that “seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient”. 

Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal, who has worked with patients who have undergone conversion therapy in the past, noted that the difference between it and ethical therapy is that the treatment is patient directed, not guided by the doctor. At Bowers’ request, she described some of the more harmful treatments her patients had experienced. Some were required to inflict pain on themselves whenever they thought of same sex attraction or had gender dysphoric thoughts. Others were led through talk therapy with the sole goal of eliminating these same characteristics, instead of helping them work through their concerns. 

Nate Rhoton also spoke against conversion therapy, and in favor of legislatively banning it. Rhoton is the CEO of one-n-ten, an LGBTQ youth organization. He noted that a large body of research indicates conversion therapy is not only innefective, but also has devastating consequences for LGBTQ youth. He pointed out that several mainstream medical organizations have denounced the practice and advocate instead for supportive and affirmative care. 

“Believe me when I say this bill will literally save lives,” Rhoton said. 

A report by the Williams Institute, a public policy think tank based in the UCLA School of Law that studies sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy, found that conversion therapy doubled suicidal ideation among non-transgender LGB youth alone.  

Lynette Braddock spoke on behalf of her transgender daughter, saying the bill would grant her much needed peace of mind in her future endeavors. Braddock’s daughter is in the top 10% of her law school cohort at Arizona State University, but worries about being rejected from jobs and housing once she graduates. The bill would help protect her from discrimination. 

“She just wants to be an independent adult providing for herself and giving back to the community,” Braddock said. 

Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D- Chandler, agreed with Braddock that housing insecurity was a real concern for transgender Arizonans. She shared that in 2009, while apartment hunting, she found a rental agreement that included transgender applicants among its prohibitions. 

“You could not have a meth lab, you could not be transgendered if you wanted to rent those apartments,” she said. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that one in five transgender individuals have faced discrimination in housing, and as much as 40% of homeless youth is LGBTQ. 

For Abigail Jensen, an attorney for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, the bill presented problems because it puts the burden of proof on transgender people when filing discrimination claims. The bill includes a provision that defines gender identity and states evidence can be provided by medical history, a consistent assertion of gender identity, or other proof that the gender identity is sincerely held and “not being asserted for an improper purpose.” 

Jensen, who is a trans woman, said it was unfair to require transgender individuals to prove their gender identity, because no discrimination claims need to be proven, as in racial discrimination. Gender identity discrimination can also occur to non-transgendered individuals perceived as transgender, she added. 

“No one should have to prove their gender identity to be protected. …The requirements of proof of your gender identity are unhelpful, don’t further the purpose of the bill and are unfair in specifically treating trans people differently than everybody else who’s protected under nondiscrimination laws,” she said. 

Jensen also objected to the exemptions for religious organizations and beliefs, noting that no other minority is allowed to be discriminated against for religious reasons. 

“As a society we have realized that the interest in equality for all is more important than a business owner being able to impose their own beliefs on who is worthy, and who is not,” she said. 

Still, proponents say HB2802 is a step in the right direction, despite its problems.  

Michael Soto, who helped draft the bill and is the CEO of Equality Arizona, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said the strengths of the bill were in its intentions. Soto said the measure was particularly poignant to him, because as a trans man he has experienced discrimination in employment and hopes future legislation could work to prevent that. 

“What stands out to me most about this bill is that it is such a wonderful attempt to protect Arizonans in the spirit of pluralism and democracy. It is an attempt to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse Arizona,” he said. 

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

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