Virginia Democrat pushes for limits to gay conversion therapy

Apryl Prentiss was raised a faithful Christian, and she loved church. So when she realized she was a lesbian, she was terrified and ashamed.

She sought out reparative therapy for gays who wanted to be straight. The years she spent there, followed by two in a Christian ex-gay program in Virginia Beach, were “the darkest of my life,” she said Monday during a news conference at the Virginia Capitol. “I absolutely detested myself.”

Prentiss has been married to a woman for seven years, “and it’s terrific,” she said — but she doesn’t want teenagers to suffer as she did. That’s why she’s supporting a bill from Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) to ban the practice of reparative or conversion therapy by mental health professionals trying to “cure” minors of being gay.

The practice is increasingly seen as anti-gay at a time when more and more Americans view sexual orientation not as a choice or lifestyle, and see gays as a group deserving of legal protection.

The ban would not affect religious counseling that does not involve licensed therapists or adults who seek out the therapy on their own. It would bar professional therapists from practicing conversion therapy, which the American Psychiatric Association opposes, on children younger than 18.

Hope and other advocates said they spoke to people who underwent the therapy as minors but were not willing to speak publicly. No statistics were available on the number of people who have gone through the treatment either as minors or adults.

It’s “a very shadowy arena,” said Victoria Bragunier, the director of public policy for the Alliance for Progressive Values.

California and New Jersey have enacted similar bans, both of which have withstood legal challenges.

Social conservatives argue that the ban would intrude on the rights of therapists and families.

“It’s astonishing that the party that claims to defend choice and free speech [is] bent on limiting both for counselors, parents and kids struggling with their sexuality,” Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb said in a statement.

Virginia Democrats are pushing several gay rights initiatives, capitalizing on an area in which public sentiment has moved dramatically during the past decade — and forcing Republicans to take positions on an issue for which their party’s base is out of step with most Americans.

Hope acknowledged Monday that it would be hard to get the bill through the House of Delegates, which is Republican-dominated. But he suggested that it was the right time to begin debate on the issue, even if the legislation does not pass this year.

“We could, in this very session, regulate tanning beds for minors,” he said. “This is far worse.”

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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