On fifth try in five years, Colorado lawmakers move to ban gay conversion therapy

The medical community agrees the therapy is ineffective, and many argue it can be harmful to LGBTQ religious youth

Editor’s note: House lawmakers on Feb. 19 passed the bill banning sexual orientation conversion therapy for minors by a vote of 42-20. Two Republicans joined Democrats supporting the ban. On March 25, the Senate passed the bill 21-13. Three Republicans joined Democrats. This story was originally published on Feb. 13, 2019. 

Isaac Archuleta was 22 years old when he told his parents he was gay. He grew up in a Christian household and felt conflicted between his sexuality and his religion. This anxiety led him to drink heavily, contemplate suicide, and get kicked out of college, he said. When he came out to his parents, he said his mother contacted the Heritage Christian Center, a megachurch in Aurora, and found him a conversion therapist. Typically, such therapists use various techniques, including electroshock therapy, to try to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals.

Archuleta said the therapist wanted him to hang out with more men and spend less time with his mother. He said he left feeling broken. Like he was not hardwired correctly. Like he was damaged.

“So it’s not that I am doing something wrong,” he recalls thinking at the time. “It’s I am wrong.”

Archuleta, now a licensed psychotherapist with a masters degree, came to the Capitol Wednesday to testify in favor of a bill that would ban the controversial therapy for minors. He said the practice causes harm and is based on the outdated theory that homosexuality is socialized.  

The hearing was in the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee, which ultimately passed the bill 8-3, with one Republican joining Democrats. The bill prohibits mental health professionals from using this practice and makes it a violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act to advertise conversion therapy. The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.

Isaac Archuleta, a counselor to LGBTQ religious youth, at the state Capitol on Feb. 13, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

The medical community largely agrees there no evidence that gay-conversion therapy is effective. The practice, which has been linked to depression and suicides, is already banned for use on minors in 15 states.

But the proposed ban has drawn opposition from religious groups, who say it violates religious freedoms and First Amendment speech protections. This argument has been enough to persuade Republicans to vote down similar legislation banning conversion therapy four times in the last four years in Colorado.

But this year, Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. Even so, former state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, testified in support of the bill, equating conversion therapy to snake handling. She said the practice is fraud under consumer protection law. One Republican committee member, Rep. Colin Larson, a cafe owner in Jefferson County, supported the bill. Before casting his vote, he said he might be the youngest committee member, and that his opinion might come down to a generational difference with his colleagues.

“Students should be able to reach the age of adulthood to make that decision for themselves,” Larson told The Colorado Independent after the vote. “It’s a millennial issue. … I think it’s a head-scratcher for a lot us that we are still debating LGBTQ issues.”

He said he does not want to overly impede religious freedoms. He agrees that the proposed law should not apply to pastors. And, he said, adults should be free to receive conversion therapy. The bill allows them to do that, he said.

The committee vote was celebrated as a win for LGBTQ community members, many of whom came to Capitol wearing pins and waving rainbow flags. But the week has not been without reminders of the 1990s culture wars. On Tuesday, House Democrats voted down a bill that would have allowed businesses and organizations with religious beliefs to deny services to LGBTQ people. Another bill that would make it a felony crime to perform an abortion was killed in committee Wednesday. Similar abortion bills have failed in prior years.

Jeff Johnston, a lobbyist with Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian public policy advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, has repeatedly fought the conversion therapy ban.

For Johnston, 58, it’s about allowing people to practice their faith. He also cites the work of Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist who believed that homosexuality was a disorder that can be eliminated.

He began his testimony on the bill by saying that he was once attracted to men, which he said he kept a secret until he was about 21 years old. This led to a struggle with depression and anxiety. But he saw a licensed counselor, and he told the committee he “left homosexuality” and is now married to a woman with three sons.

Despite his current circumstances, he said he still sometimes has sexual feelings for men.

“I figured I would go to counseling for six weeks and I would be healed,” Johnston told The Colorado Independent. “I soon realized that these were deep-seated issues and that there was no quick fix.”

The change came slowly, he said, and it was not a 180-degree turn-around.

“This isn’t about shifting from gay to straight. It’s about living out what the Bible says,” he said. Quoting the late author and Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson,“‘It’s a long obedience in the same direction.’ That’s Christianity,” Johnston said.

Archuleta, who is now the executive director of iAmClinic, which provides counseling to LGBTQ religious youth, said he respects the different opinions on the issue within the religious community.

At 31 years old, he said he finally came to terms with his sexual orientation. His parents, however, have not. But he said they still refer to his partner, Joe, as their son.

“Theologically they don’t agree,” he said. “So it’s this beautiful paradox that they embrace. They say, ‘We don’t agree, but we love you.’ It’s such a beautiful balance.”