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Wisconsin Republicans Find a Roundabout Way To Bring Back Conversion Therapy

Protesters hold signs advocating against conversion therapy.

While many people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions a few weeks into the year, Wisconsin Republicans have already made big progress on one of theirs—to make life as difficult as possible for struggling LGBTQIA youth with less-than-accepting adults in their lives. And they succeeded in spite of not having the votes!

In 2020, the state board that licenses counselors, therapists, and social workers barred these professionals from using so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice that seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity and that has been linked to mental health harm and increased suicidal risk. Included as one bullet in a section defining unprofessional conduct, the step seemed obvious to those who think such rules should protect consumers—as uncontroversial as saying plumbers shouldn’t install lead pipes, or that your stylist shouldn’t use harmful dyes. After all, every major medical and mental health organization in the country knows this stuff is bad news.

But why let professional standards set by experts in the field stand in the way of homophobia? After unsuccessfully trying to move a bill in the last session to prevent the ban, Republicans found a way to circumvent the legislative process in committee. On January 12, a legislative rules committee voted 6­–4 along party lines to strike down the state board’s rule.

Republicans on the committee argued the vote wasn’t about the merits but about whether the state board overstepped its authority on a policy issue that should be decided by the legislature. Never mind that the decision was actually made in a committee that isn’t supposed to make policy. (Maybe they were hoping we wouldn’t notice?)

Regardless, the effect is the same. Therapists and social workers in the state can once again engage in a practice that most in the field think should be banned. As Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson put it, “Just because you say you’re not doing what we’re about to do doesn’t mean you’re not doing it.”

And they’re doing it over the protests of just about everyone else in the room. In the nearly four-hour hearing, all but two of the speakers opposed the lifting of the ban. Marc Herstand, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, minced no words. “Child abuse, torture, a major mental health and suicidal risk, unprofessional conduct, fake therapy. These are words you could use to describe conversion therapy,” Herstand told the committee. “This is an extremely harmful practice that causes major mental health and suicidal ideology among young people.”

So if so-called conversion therapy is a so-called policy issue, does that mean Wisconsin legislators will be settling this anytime soon? Doubtful. Democrats can’t advance a ban in the extremely gerrymandered legislature, and Republicans failed to pass their bill unbanning it in the last session. If they did succeed, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would almost certainly whip out his veto pen.

And if their goal was to keep Wisconsin on the list of 30-odd states that still allow the (unfortunately still prevalent) practice? They’ve already achieved that without bringing it to the floor.

(via Wisconsin Eye, featured image: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

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