Among medical professionals, there's virtually no debate: So-called conversion therapy, which claims to turn gay kids straight, is junk science — and potentially harmful. That's why municipalities ranging from Miami Beach to the City of Miami to West Palm Beach have already banned the dubious practice.
Soon all of Miami-Dade County could join their ranks. The county commission's Public Safety and Health Committee will hold a hearing today on a measure to forbid conversion therapy in Dade.
"Children and teenagers are especially vulnerable," Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava says. "As an elected official, it is my job to protect our residents from harm. Conversion therapy is a predatory practice which belongs with pseudoscience."
The dangerous practice has long since been denounced by the science community. As far back as 1993, the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article stating, "Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation."
But guilt and anxiety aren't the worst side effects such fake treatment can cause. The American Psychological Association reported in 2009 that efforts to change a person's sexuality could lead to substance abuse, depression, and suicide.
The county's ban was proposed in late May by Commissioner Sally Heyman and cosponsored by Levine Cava and Audrey Edmonson. Today's hearing will be the second of three votes before a full airing for the commission. Heyman says if the bill passes, "other cities will hopefully follow."
The bill would fine anyone who practices conversion therapy on a minor $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent violation. Even if the bill passes, local LGBT activists assure that work will remain to protect gay youth from the harmful practice.
"The bill is not complete by any means," warns Justin Klecha, deputy director of SAVE, a South Florida LGBTQ rights group. Klecha notes the ordinance applies to only unincorporated parts of Miami-Dade, so if it passes, only six municipalities out of 30 will have bans in place.
However, Levine Cava says she will seek county-wide expansion of the ordinance if it's passed. SAVE has been working with several local governments for widespread bans on conversion therapy.
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In January, the group partnered with Florida Rep. David Richardson to introduce a bill banning conversion therapy in the entire state. But the bill was shot down by the conservative Legislature in May. Now SAVE hopes to be successful in Miami-Dade as it gathers supporters to rally at Wednesday's public hearing at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center.
It's not clear how common the widely debunked practice remains in South Florida, but advocates say it's not completely unheard of.
"There's not a big rate of conversion therapy practitioners, but it is going on," Heyman says.