Kentucky Legislature lets anti-LGBTQ ‘conversion therapy’ stay legal for yet another year
“Conversion therapy” is dangerous for LGBTQ youth, and bipartisan support for prohibiting it grew in recent years. But this session, lawmakers passed an anti–LGBTQ law instead.
Research shows gender-affirming medical care, like hormone therapy, can greatly improve transgender people's mental health. And it shows the scientifically discredited practice of so-called “conversion therapy” can cause serious psychological harm to trans and other LGBTQ people.
The American Medical Association and other distinguished health organizations say gender-affirming medical care should be accessible. And they recommend against “conversion therapy” — which tries to change a person’s sexual orientation or their gender identity — because it poses substantial risks to people who are subjected to it.
The Kentucky Legislature prohibited licensed professionals from providing one of those practices to patients this year — and it wasn’t the one opposed by America’s leading medical associations.
“It kind of gives their intentions away. It clarifies that their intention is not to protect children,” said Oliver Hall, director of trans health for the Kentucky Health Justice Network. “If their intention was to protect children, they would have started by banning ‘conversion therapy,’ which we have decades of research to show is harmful — especially for developing youth.”
Hall, who is nonbinary, said trying to convince trans people they aren’t trans isn’t ever effective.
“All it does is create long-term mental health issues and make people prone to hating themselves and give them a longer timeline for achieving mental health and stability,” they said.
Legislation that would partially ban “conversion therapy” has been repeatedly introduced for years, and organizations like Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky have advocated for it.
So has Rep. Lisa Willner, who sponsored bills to ban “conversion therapy” every year since she joined the Kentucky House of Representatives in 2019.
The legislation would prohibit licensed mental health professionals in Kentucky from providing “conversion therapy” to anyone under 18 years old. The penalty for doing so would be professional discipline by relevant certification or licensing boards.
The ban wouldn’t apply to religious leaders as long as they aren’t also licensed mental health professionals.
The suggested ban gradually has gained some bipartisan support among state lawmakers over the years.
Willner said that support peaked in 2020 and 2021, with several Republican lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors while others told her they’d back the bill if it came up for a vote. But it never did, in the House or the Senate.
“I think at that point we really felt like there was some possibility that we could get this done,” she said of passing the ban.
Two years later, Willner said the landscape in Frankfort has changed dramatically.
She pointed to the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 150, a major anti-trans bill that:
- Prohibits Kentucky doctors from providing certain types of gender-affirming medical care for trans kids, including estrogen or testosterone treatments and medication that delays puberty.
- Requires public schools to let teachers misgender trans students and to prevent those students from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.
- Imposes rules that generally prevent public schools from allowing educational presentations on gender identity or sexual orientation.
This year, Willner said “there seemed to be more of an adherence to” a national Republican strategy to target trans kids. And that has dimmed her hopes that the Legislature will pass the “conversion therapy” ban.
“In the current climate, I don't think the bill has much hope of actually passing and becoming law,” she said. “But I still am very committed to the effort, and to anything we can do to get the word out there that this is not a practice that's helpful to people.”
At least one person who voted for Senate Bill 150 also supports the proposed ban on “conversion therapy” — Republican Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville.
He said those two proposals are materially different matters, though.
Nemes co-sponsored legislation to ban “conversion therapy” in the past and said he still supports it, but it “wasn’t part of the conversation on Senate Bill 150.”
As for whether he thinks the Legislature will ever vote to prohibit “conversion therapy,” he said he never counts any proposal out completely.
He used medical cannabis as an example. He repeatedly sponsored a bill to legalize that in Kentucky even though some people told him it had no shot at becoming law.
At long last, though, the Legislature approved it last month.
“So I don’t want to say it will never pass,” he said of the “conversion therapy” ban.
Republican Rep. Kim Banta of Fort Mitchell sponsored bills to ban “conversion therapy” in prior years but didn’t do so this year.
Banta said that’s because, “I saw the writing on the wall, and I knew that it was not going to get a hearing.”
“I was hoping very much that by not bringing it up, it would maybe prevent some of the things that did pass. And obviously, my strategy failed,” said Banta, who voted against SB 150.
Banta pointed to the 2022 election as a key driver of the recent shift in the Legislature. She said Republican primary voters selected more conservative lawmakers who went on to win the November general election.
“Remember that elections have consequences,” she said. “And this is kind of one of those consequences.”