Anti-conversion therapy activism in Illinois gains momentum alongside national movement

Julia Jacobs, Assistant City Editor

Illinois activists and politicians are ramping up efforts to gain votes for a state ban on so-called conversion therapy for LGBT youth in the hopes of passing the bill out of the state’s House of Representatives by next Friday’s deadline.

The bill restricts licensed medical health providers in the state from practicing conversion or reparative therapy on minors, in which professionals attempt to change the sexuality or gender identity of their patients. The Conversion Therapy Prohibition Act, which failed to pass in both the Illinois House and Senate during last year’s legislative session, was reintroduced in both chambers in January by Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), who represents Evanston.

In the effort to get enough votes to pass the bill through the legislature by the end of May, President Barack Obama’s recent announcement supporting statewide conversion therapy bans will have a substantial impact on passing the bill, said Rep. Sam Yingling (D-Hainesville), the first openly gay person elected to the Illinois legislature from outside of Chicago. Obama’s endorsement has also attracted national focus to the issue, shedding light on the damage the practice does to LGBT youth, said Yingling, who signed on Tuesday to co-sponsor the bill.

“This issue has been coming to the forefront for a number of years, and that is a result of the public recognizing that so-called reparative therapy or so-called conversion therapy is nothing more than quackery,” Yingling told The Daily. “Conversion therapy does not work. It’s no more effective that somebody going to a therapist to change the color of their skin.”

The Obama administration released the statement calling for an end to conversion therapy April 8 in response to a petition named in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender youth who committed suicide by walking in front of a semi-truck at the end of last December. Alcorn wrote in her suicide note about her parents’ efforts to change her gender identity through conversion therapy. The petition, which was first published in early January, has garnered more than 120,000 signatures.

Around the same time earlier this year, Illinois activists’ campaign for a renewed state bill began.

In January, Equality Illinois, the state’s largest advocacy group for the LGBT population, began working with Cassidy and Biss to gain the legislative vote in Springfield while getting constituents involved on the ground.

On Wednesday, about 60 Equality Illinois supporters from Chicago and central Illinois went to Springfield to lobby their legislators in favor of the bill, said Patty Dillon, director of field operations for the organization. A press conference on the bill, attended by eight legislators, featured speakers that included a psychotherapist, a pastor from Chicago and an individual sharing a personal experience with conversion therapy, Dillon added.

With no time to waste, Dillon said Equality Illinois sent out an email blast to its supporters Thursday, just over a week before the deadline to pass the bill out of the House, urging them to reach out to their legislators.

California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia are the only regions to have banned the practice, with 18 other states having introduced legislation this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization working toward LGBT equality.

The Illinois Family Institute, a right-wing Christian advocacy group, has criticized the bill for preventing young people who want to change their homosexual feelings through counseling from accessing it.

“Cassidy’s oppressive anti-autonomy, anti-parental rights bill seeks to ban any counseling that may result in the rejection of a ‘gay’ identity,” wrote Laurie Higgins, a member of the organization, in a call to action published on the group’s website. “This bill seeks to rob minors of the freedom to seek ways of constructing an identity that don’t include affirming their unchosen homoerotic feelings.”

Although there is no statistical data on the prevalence of the practice in Illinois, there are personal stories from people in the state as well as condemnations of the practice by medical organizations on both ethical and scientific fronts, said Michael Ziri, director of public policy of Equality Illinois.

The American Academy of Pediatrics came out against the practice, highlighting its negative psychological effects, while the American Medical Association called out its lack of efficacy.

“Sexual orientation…is part of someone’s identity, and this legislation really protects LGBT youth from efforts to change them from who they are,” Ziri said. “This bill says you are valuable as a person and your identity is important.”

Equality Illinois’ advocacy strategy included reaching out to the community, seeking individuals who have experienced attempts to reverse their sexuality or gender identity, Dillon said.

Individuals consistently reach out to the organizations to share their stories — many times upon recommendation from their religious coalition partners, she said. Although some members of the clergy oppose the ban, there are many in Illinois that have made their congregations a safe space for LGBT people to open up, she said.

Yingling said his role in working to pass the legislation is similar to during the campaign for the same-sex marriage bill in that he has been focusing on educating suburban legislators, who he said tend to not be as well-versed on the issue. It’s clear that there is a growing consensus in the House, Yingling said.

“There’s still some work that needs to be done,” Yingling said. “But I’m optimistic that we can do it by the end of the session.”

This post was updated April 17 at 3:05 p.m. to reflect Daily style.

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