Ulster County became the fourth community in New York to ban a long-discredited form of treatment that seeks to alter a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The ban on so-called “conversion therapy” was passed by a unanimous vote of the Ulster County Legislature on June 20 and signed into law by County Executive Mike Hein one month later.
The law imposes penalties of up to one year in prison and fines up to $500 for anyone who practices conversion or “reparative” techniques on a minor under the age of 18 within the bounds of Ulster County. The practice is defined in the statute as, “Any formal treatment that aims to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of a minor. This includes attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual as well as from heterosexual to homosexual.” The law does not include “psychotherapies that provide acceptance, support and understanding for clients.” The law also specifies that it does not prohibit clergy from “pastoral counseling, teaching or relaying of their religion’s doctrine.”
Homosexuality was removed from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973. Virtually every professional organization in psychology and social science has deemed the now-outlawed practice not only ineffective, but harmful. Experts say the practice is particularly damaging when applied to children.
“It can lead to everything from depression to increased risk of substance abuse to suicide,” said Jeff Rindler, executive director of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center. “When you tell someone that they are bad and wrong for being who they are and they are damned to hell, it has a horrifying impact on them.”
The technique is already illegal in 14 states, the District of Columbia and 43 municipalities around the country. An executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo bars practitioners from seeking reimbursement from insurance companies for it as well. But efforts to ban the practice outright have repeatedly stalled in New York’s Republican controlled state Senate. New York City, Erie County both enacted local laws prohibiting conversion techniques earlier this year. A ban on the practice is set to take effect in Rochester next month and Albany in September.
In Ulster County, the legislation was introduced by county lawmaker Jonathan Heppner (D-Woodstock). Heppner said he got the idea after reading about Erie County’s efforts. Heppner said he was unaware of anyone practicing conversion techniques in Ulster County, but he said he had learned that the practice frequently occurs hidden from public view.
“As our society and culture has changed to be more accepting, conversion therapy has been pushed into the shadows,” said Heppner. “It’s going on in church basements and camps run by religious institutions.”
Backers of the ban say that in addition to preventing actual harm to minors subjected to the technique, the new legislation would send a message of acceptance to gay and transgender youth.
“With this law, we are saying loud and clear that Ulster County will not tolerate psychological or physical abuse of our youth in any form, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Hein. “And that the disgraceful pseudo-science practice of conversion therapy in all its forms has no place here.”