By the Book: Legislative cowardice created an embarrassing exchange around transition therapy


Illustration by Hugo Juarez-Avalos

On Monday, April 3, 2023, the Jackson County Legislature had—after numerous failed attempts across three official meetings, a public hearing, and three different versions of the bill—finally passed a conversion therapy ban for minors in Ordinance 5731, becoming the first county in Missouri to take such a stance.

It seems pretty reasonable today to wonder how this Biblically archaic, Pencean sham shouldn’t have already been banned by the powers that be long ago. So why did this ban, which ended up passing unanimously, require so much time and effort to finally enshrine at the county level?

Interference, both from outside and within the legislature itself, as well as some instances of poor timing aligned to slow an outcome that first-term 1st district legislator Manny Abarca still believes turned out 100% favorable in the end.

“As it was presented to me, I think at first initiated by my colleague, Jalen Anderson (1st District At-Large), and honestly my former [Democratic primary] opponent, Justice Horn, it was a concept that I supported, but the practicality of the legislation needed some modification and fixing. So that’s when I really stepped in, and kind of took the reins on it,” Abarca says.

 A brief history of evil

The legislation itself defines conversion therapy as “any practice or treatment that seeks to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” and which may include “efforts to change behaviors or gender expressions” of a minor.

Also known as “reparative therapy,” this putrid, mongrel spur of actual evidence-based psychology can trace its roots back to at least 1899 when German psychologist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing claimed he had successfully “turned” a gay man straight after over 50 sessions of hypnosis (and several forced brothel trips). 

Around this same time, for contrast, Sigmund Freud believed that humans were born bisexual and that conditioning led to those becoming exclusively attracted to the same sex. 

Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the American Boomer conservative zeitgeist had, in some pockets, brought conversion therapy along with it. The practice had then, for the last three decades of the century, been rapidly dismantled and discredited by credible academia—and yet that still didn’t stop it from occurring. 

One particularly disgusting historical footnote here concerns the evil cousin of conversion therapy—aversion therapy, which were practices that sought to create conditions of disgust within a homosexual when they saw stimulating material such as photographs of their same-sex lover or when forced to view gay pornography in a laboratory setting or to cross-dress in those same conditions. As these victims faced their selected torture method, they were administered a chemical that induced vomiting.

Those were the despicable lengths some have gone take to change someone’s sexual orientation against their own will. 

A swift and compelling nail in the coffin for conversion therapy came in 2013, when Exodus International, an overarching group connected with a network of conversion therapy programs and gay ministry organizations, folded after almost 40 years when President Alan Chambers admitted it was impossible to change one’s sexual orientation.          

So far, a rather meager 21 states and the District of Columbia have banned the practice completely within their borders, with Minnesota joining the fold in April. Five states and Puerto Rico also have partial bans in place, with hundreds more coming at county and municipal levels nationwide.

Progress on this issue has played out marginally slower closer to home. Kansas City first outlawed conversion therapy as a municipality in Nov. 2019, while Independence waited two years before following suit. In Johnson County, Roeland Park, and Prarie Village have bans enacted, with the average fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 for those who fail to comply.

Political squabbles 

The latest Jackson County Legislature now has six of its nine members in their seats for the first time. Seven of them are Democrats, and the majority of them, for the first time ever, are from a minority background. 

Of the three meetings in question, the most eventful was the first on March 20, when Ordinance 5711 failed despite a 5-1 vote after a procedural effort increased the number of votes required for passage from five to six. Abstaining from the vote were legislators DaRon McGee (4th District), Donna Peyton (2nd District At-Large), and Venessa Huskey (2nd District).

The lone detractor who didn’t hold out was Sean Smith (6th District)—one of the two Republican legislators alongside Jeanie Lauer (5th District). Smith objected to the consent agenda from the get-go and set forth a series of attempts to amend parts of the language of the legislation even prior to that deciding 5-1 roll-call vote.

The first vote ushered by Smith failed with just two ‘yes’ votes from himself and Peyton, who had seconded the motion. 

About 15 minutes in, Lauer levied a question aimed at Smith’s intentions: “Just so I am very clear, I’m tracking the specific changes that you want to make… and so you’re taking out ‘LGBTQ’ and inserting the word ‘vulnerable’?” 

“Correct,” Smith replied, adding that “there are references to LGBTQ elsewhere.” 

Smith stumbled through some more questioning before making two more attempts that failed to a lack of a second as Peyton changed course.

“You started seeing some of the political underhandedness that ultimately led to the first failure of this vote,” Abarca says. “And so, the question around this was, ‘Is this really just about banning conversion therapy?’” 

Discussion on the floor started to boil between Smith and Anderson as the latter took hold of his peers’ attention to delivering a passionate account of his time being put through a conversion therapy program while attending a now-closed institution in Independence when he was between the ages of 12 and 14.

“I went through bible classes, I read the entire bible, and I was tested on it. And they made sure I hated myself! Because they told [me I] was gay,” Anderson said. “I went to a private Christian school, and that pastor there said, ‘We cannot have you be a sissy!’”

Anderson explained that he, who identifies as a straight male, was rounded up along with three other youths who were gay and who all would eventually take their own lives following the experience. This ordinance saves lives, Anderson explained in a raised voice. Why wait on saving lives?

In spite of this appeal, the ordinance behind the ban was shelved for another week, to be reintroduced March 27. It then took another full session to finally get matters on agreeable terms. 

The medium versus the message

While the proven harm conversion therapy leaves etched on its victims both mentally and physically is not up for debate, determining just how prevalent this brand new crime in Jackson County is, or historically has been, is a bit less clear-cut.

“I never could identify an entity or a person that had been victimized here in recent years. So that was the subject of much discussion as well—‘who are we really impacting with this right now?’ Or are we sending a signal? Which I think can be powerful as well,” Abarca says. “Whether it’s a symbolic gesture or not, we’re telling those who are in this business and, frankly, faith leaders that are really utilizing this to impact folks’ lives, and saying that it’s not going to be tolerable in Jackson County.”

At the very root of it, Abarca thought the fine print needed to at least add up to something that was enforceable in some practical, measurable ways. Rushing the bill out without considering a number of implications and adjusting the language accordingly can sometimes do as much harm as good. This is especially the case in a Show Me State legislature that is stocked from top to bottom with a GOP supermajority, with Palpatine levels of seemingly limitless power.

Abarca offers one such example of a factor that he and his fellow legislators had to consider carefully if they were to indeed set this precedent for the state: “If I’m standing a medical procedure, which is what some have called conversion therapy, what is to say then that the right-wing can’t come in and say, ‘Well, I’m banning abortion in Jackson County’—a medical procedure?”

The version of the bill that ultimately passed April 3 had originally been introduced by Anderson and co-sponsored by Abarca. In addition to listing a $500 fine (and no jail time) for violations, the legislature-approved final product included a stipulation that $4,000 be allocated towards notifying the public, which included ads in local press and additional media. 

A crucial consideration, Abarca says, were added revisions that would prevent organizations who employ individuals convicted of practicing conversion therapy from receiving future funding from Jackson County indefinitely.

“When we added the layer of the lifetime ban for those who can who are convicted of this or their staff to be stripped of county funding—that in essence did what the Republicans are doing in retaliation—we prevented organizations from being supported, and that that was not previously in the legislation,” Abarca says. “So those revisions, I think, made this a very strong and enforceable mechanism and not just alone that warm fuzzy feeling.”

Another section of the ban puts in place procedures through which survivors can seek justice if they so choose. This was another portion that Abarca said the legislature needed to get just right. In general, modernizing the county’s infrastructure and communications systems to communicate more directly with constituents was a talking point across the board in the last few election cycles. These efforts include said reporting system. 

Progressivism in red

Missouri continues to garner pretty low scores on nearly all credible metrics for LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, this downward slide seems to be increasing thanks to recent action by state legislators. And yet, this conversion therapy ban in Jackson County is still a big deal, a metric through which the current crop of legislators can gauge the difficulty of further progressive action for marginalized groups.

While the GOP chokehold on the state seems set to continue for the foreseeable future, it’s important that, even for a county legislature that is perhaps as far left as it’s ever been, legislators understand the incrementality of change and toe the line accordingly. 

Abarca, definitely one of the most progressive sitting legislators—along with Anderson, who may in some metrics have him beat—cites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a politician whom he says he loves and often agrees with, as an example. 

“Government is not reactionary at the moment. If [AOC] said less and worked behind the scenes more, she would likely accomplish more,” Abarca says. 

“You have the advocates for doing work that is hard, that are getting no credit for the work and the action—then you have social media panderers who are just doing snippets, they’re doing stage time,” Abarca says. “They’re doing strategic images to appear to have done everything or be in the leadership of these efforts. And that’s unfortunately where folks can buy momentum from those that don’t understand the true processes”

After all the pontificating and politicking, once the ban was finally passed, if only for a moment or two, all nine legislators were able to reflect on justice being served—a successful step forward. 

Categories: Politics