Meagan C. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), the youngest member of the Maryland General Assembly, sounded tentative as she took the floor: “I actually thought about being silent on this issue.”
The matter before the House of Delegates on Wednesday was a bill that would ban licensed health professionals from practicing gay-conversion therapy on minors. That pseudoscientific “gay cure” attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity through techniques that have included electric shocks and induced vomiting. It operates on the thoroughly discredited premise that homosexuality is a sickness or moral failure, and it has been condemned by major medical and mental health associations.
“What is not broken cannot be fixed,” Simonaire, 27, told her fellow delegates. And then she shared the story of “a girl who grew up in the best family,” and realized when she was a teen that she was bisexual. Her parents were “heartbroken and disgusted.” Rather than accept her as she revealed herself to be, they looked into conversion therapy — an option the girl refused.
“The pain of having her good-intentioned parents convinced of its ability to ‘fix her’ was enough to cause significant pain, self-loathing and deep depression,” Simonaire said, her fingers making quote marks. “There were times where she seemingly couldn’t stop the tears from falling.”
Then came a kicker. Simonaire — a conservative who attended fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and who had not previously spoken publicly about her sexual orientation — revealed that she was the girl in her story.
This was a gay-rights #MeToo moment with yet another twist: Her father and political mentor is state Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), who had been a leading opponent of the same bill in the other chamber.
A week before, as the Senate deliberated the legislation, he had argued that it was possible for conversion therapy to be done in a “loving” way, and posited that “Jesus would have been banned if he had been licensed in Maryland.”
After his daughter’s startling revelation, Bryan Simonaire disputed some of the details. He said she was an adult when she came to her parents two years ago with the news that she is bisexual, and insisted that they had only recommended — not demanded — that she consult “various Christian counselors.”
“I don’t agree with her lifestyle,” he told the Baltimore Sun, “but that’s her personal choice.”
The bill passed both chambers by 3-to-1 margins. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) intends to sign it, which means Maryland will become the 11th state to ban the practice of gay conversion therapy on people under the age of 18. A total of 20 legislatures have been considering such laws this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. California, which in 2012 became the first state to enact such a ban , is looking at expanding its penalties, so that those who perform conversion therapy on people of any age can be sued for fraud.
That such laws would be needed in 2018 is disturbing. It has been more than 44 years since the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.
The association has since found that conversion therapy is not only ineffective, but dangerous, with a potential to cause depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. In 2009, an American Psychological Association task force conducted a survey of peer-reviewed research and reported “aversive techniques have been found to have very limited benefits as well as potentially harmful effects. These documented harms were serious.”
Conservative groups have argued that the state laws interfere with family decision-making and religious liberty. The 2016 Republican platform seemed to nod in their direction, when it declared: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”
For all the scientific evidence debunking it, the practice of gay conversion techniques by licensed therapists remains surprisingly common, according to a study released in January by the Williams Institute, a University of California at Los Angeles Law School think tank that studies gender issues.
Among LGBT adults under 60, the study found that close to 700,000 had undergone some form of conversion therapy, about half of them as adolescents. The institute predicted that, among LGBT youth currently in their teens, another 20,000 will be subjected to it before they turn 18.
“If this bill keeps even one child from that, it will be worth sharing my story today,” said Meagan Simonaire, who announced in October she would not run for a second term.
But what her experience told us was not really about passing a law. It was about finding acceptance from the first people she ever loved.
And there, it sounds like the Simonaires — like so many other families — still have a long way to go.