It took Ericka L. Salerno a lot of courage Wednesday to tell the story of years of abuse, suffered at the hands of those who tried to tell her that being gay was evil and wrong. In between sobs, she told a state Senate committee about being sent to counseling at the age of 5, and again at 7 years old, and again at 17, with the same message: being gay is abnormal and against everything her church taught.
The “torture of therapy” led Salerno to spend years avoiding relationships of any kind, including with her own family, she said. Finally, at 27, she found a counselor who told her being gay was not wrong or evil and through the next decade, Salerno said she worked through the post-traumatic stress of conversion therapy and later emerged as an activist for LGBTQ rights.
Salerno, of Jefferson County, spoke to members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, also known as the Senate’s “kill” committee, which was tasked with putting to an end a bill to ban so-called “conversion therapy” for minor children. And despite emotional testimony from people who described the hell of conversion therapy as children, it wasn’t enough to persuade the committee’s Republicans to support the bill, and it died on a party-line 3-2 vote Wednesday afternoon.
The measure would have prohibited licensed physicians or mental health providers from conducting conversion therapy for anyone under the age of 18.
Under the proposal, conversion therapy is defined as efforts that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or to try to eliminate sexual or romantic feelings toward individuals of the same sex. But medical personnel who testified Wednesday all pointed out that the conversion therapy is not taught in medical schools and isn’t practiced by licensed doctors or mental health professionals.
“This is definitely not okay in medical or therapeutic practice,” said Dr. L. Charlie Lippolis of the Colorado Psychiatric Society.
Salerno wasn’t speaking just for herself Wednesday. She told The Colorado Independent that as an activist she also was testifying on behalf of those who have been through the same experience. And despite the emotional toll that talking about her experience took, she said her resolve to testify was bolstered by comments from others who asked the committee to vote against the bill.
That included Robin Patterson of Aurora, who said “we’ve allowed special interests into our classrooms” and went on to describe how seventh-grade students in the Cherry Creek school district were asked to do posters on their sexual orientation, which she called confusing. Another witness asked the committee to uphold the right of children to seek help. This bill interferes with religious freedom, is an assault on client autonomy and self determination and threatens parental rights, argued Megan Malinaric of Monument.
Their comments were countered by people from faith organizations and medical professionals, who told the committee that conversion therapy is abuse.
“It’s sad I have to testify against this…it’s torture and abuse” that produces high rates of suicide, depression, drug abuse, sexual acting-out and sexually-transmitted disease, said Dr. Jody Ryan, a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Center of Colorado.
Just before voting against the bill, Republican Sens. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Vicki Marble of Fort Collins said that there are some, including two witnesses at the Wednesday hearing, who believe that conversion therapy works, and that the state should not deny the ability of people to get that help.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder, said in a statement after the hearing that “If LGBTQ+ orientations are not considered a mental illness by the medical world, then why do we treat it as such in Colorado law? I’d say that’s government overreach, not this bill.”
In a later statement, One Colorado, the state’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group, said that “Despite the fact nearly all of the leading mental health organizations in the country, and in Colorado, reject the practice of conversion therapy, the Republican members of the committee chose to disregard science and the heartbreaking, emotional stories of those who came to testify in support of the ban.”
“It’s clear that the Republican members of the committee did not have the future of LGBTQ young people — who are some of the most vulnerable in our state — in mind when casting their votes. We will hold them accountable.”
Photo credit: Chuck Coker, via Creative Commons License, Flickr