Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney does not mince words when it comes to his thoughts on conversion therapy.
Last week, the New York Congressman introduced a federal bill which would restrict attempts to treat the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth as a mental illness. Comparing conversion therapy to archaic medical practices like leeches and bleeding, Maloney calls it “medieval-style nonsense,” in addition to “outrageous,” “barbaric,” and “cruel.”
“It’s been thoroughly discredited by every professional organization of any repute,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It has no basis in science or in mental health.”
Maloney’s bill takes a novel approach to banning conversion therapy, a loosely defined set of practices that can include everything from “praying the gay away” and talk therapy to the extreme of shock treatment — or worse. Known as the Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act, it would block the use of Medicaid funds for these treatments.
Conversion therapists often exploit loopholes to receive reimbursements through Medicaid through deceptive billing tactics. Because there’s no diagnostic code for conversion therapy, the treatment is sometimes coded as “depression.”
Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, says there are countless ways to cheat the system. According to Brinton, counselors with the national LGBTQ youth suicide prevention hotline hear “from youth harmed by conversion therapy every week,” and many of those young people are likely receiving taxpayer-funded treatment.
“By limiting the means by which licensed mental health professionals can be reimbursed for their horrific practice, the Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act will make clear that conversion therapy is far outside the mainstream,” Brinton says in a statement.
While conversion therapy has been banned in 15 states, Maloney’s bill is one of just a handful of attempts to regulate orientation change efforts at the federal level. A pair of bills co-sponsored Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) in the House and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in the Senate that would define conversion therapy as “fraud” failed to make it out of committee in 2017.
Maloney, an openly gay Democrat, says he was inspired to try again after seeing Boy Erased, a 2018 film (starring Lucas Hedges) based off Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. The book details the author’s experiences at Love in Action, a six-month treatment program intended to “cure” his homosexuality.
The 52-year-old lawmaker says watching the film “made [his] blood boil.”
“It’s a very familiar story,” he says. “I’ve had people work for me who have been subjected to conversion therapy, and it has been a nightmare for those people. The idea that we the taxpayers are funding this quackery is outrageous to me and it should stop.”
The legislation’s introduction follows several major milestones in the movement to outlaw conversion therapy across the United States. In January, New York became the 15th state to outlaw “gay cure” treatments after years of obstruction from Republican leadership in its State Senate. Colorado is poised to be next after legislation passed its House and Senate last month.
In addition, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order last Wednesday that calls upon its Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration to institute restrictions preventing licensed medical providers from offering conversion therapy within the next 90 days.
The order, which also applies to the Secretaries of Health and Economic Development and Trade, was issued after lawmakers in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives declined to vote on a bill banning orientation change efforts in March. Opponents of the legislation within the pro-statehood New Progressive Party say there’s no evidence conversion therapy is being offered on the island.
Rosselló admits it’s difficult to know how widespread conversion therapy is in Puerto Rico without any data on the subject. But during his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, he tells Rolling Stone he held listening sessions in which LGBTQ constituents detailed the harms they’d suffered as survivors of the practice.
“A lot of people that have endured these treatments have been scarred, and it’s been a painful, challenging experience for them,” he explains. “If you’re against something that is wrong, whether it’s done once or a hundred times, it’s still wrong.”
The governor hopes the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico will soon revisit the issue, and he views the executive order as a sign the island is “moving forward.”
“I am hopeful now that I’ve spoken to some of our legislators, that we will be able to [put forward] a stronger, more robust bill in the House and the Senate,” Rosselló claims. “The order is a good step, but obviously my hope would be to make it stronger by passing legislation as other states have done or ban it across the United States.”
So far, the federal conversion therapy bill has been met with resistance from conservatives in Congress. Of the 63 cosponsors who have signed onto Maloney’s legislation, not a single one is a member of the GOP.
Mahoney remains optimistic that his colleagues across the aisle will come around on the issue. Six of the 15 states which have passed conversion therapy bans did so with Republicans in the governor’s chair. Meanwhile, he believes the proposal’s focus on Medicaid funding will appeal to President Trump and other fiscal conservatives seeking to slash government-funded health programs.
“My Republican friends who are always concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars should be the first ones to join us in banning an unjustified and needless expense like conversion therapy,” he claims.
But perhaps the biggest roadblock to the passage of a law restricting orientation change treatments is the president’s second-in-command, is widely accused of supporting conversion therapy. During the Indiana native’s 2000 run for Congress, Mike Pence advocated for cutting HIV/AIDS programs and redirecting the funding to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
A spokesperson for the Vice President has denied he supports “gay cure” treatments and says the remarks were misinterpreted, but Pence has never formally come out against conversion therapy either. He could prove a powerful opponent of Maloney’s bill. Despite the challenges ahead, Maloney says he isn’t discouraged.
“Right now in our country, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been put through this mental abuse and this horrible process,” he claims. “If I could play a small part in making sure that nobody goes through that again, that would be very meaningful to me. It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes me glad I’m in Congress.”