Politics & Government

Anti-gay ‘conversion therapy’ won’t get any state money, Gov. Roy Cooper orders

Legislators propose expanding protections for LGBTQ community

Mental health and LGBTQ+ advocates spoke about three new bills outside of the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, April 16 ,2019. Each bill would increase protections for LGBTQ+ citizens and one would ban "conversion therapy" for minors.
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Mental health and LGBTQ+ advocates spoke about three new bills outside of the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, April 16 ,2019. Each bill would increase protections for LGBTQ+ citizens and one would ban "conversion therapy" for minors.

No taxpayer money should be used for “conversion therapy” practices that treat being gay as a mental illness, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday when he signed a new executive order targeting the controversial therapy.

“No child should be told that they must change their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Kendra R. Johnson, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality NC, in a press release. “We’re grateful that Gov. Cooper agrees. We are committed to ending this debunked practice and will work for statewide protections.”

Conversion therapy is the process of trying to force LGBTQ people to change their sexual identity or preference. It can use techniques ranging from prayer to electrical shocks. The American Psychiatric Association considers it an unethical practice with “no credible evidence” to back it.

Cooper, a Democrat, said in a tweet announcing his executive order, “Conversion therapy has been shown to pose serious health risks, and we should be protecting all of our children, including those who identify as LGBTQ, instead of subjecting them to a dangerous practice.”

Not everyone was pleased, however. The Christian group NC Values Coalition strongly criticized Cooper’s executive order.

Tami Fitzgerald, the NC Values Coalition executive director, published a statement calling the decision “one of the most blatant attacks of this governor on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

She also pointed out that while Cooper’s executive order bans state funding for conversion therapy, it specifically says that the state can still fund therapy that helps people transition if they identify as transgender.

“It’s obvious Gov. Cooper is seeking to raise more money for his re-election campaign in New York and San Francisco,” Fitzgerald said.

Cooper is up for re-election in 2020. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican planning to run against Cooper next year, declined to comment through a campaign spokesman.

Executive orders only affect state government, so Cooper’s order Friday can’t stop any private practice of conversion therapy. But his order stops the state from sending any money to groups that use conversion therapy on children.

It wasn’t immediately clear Friday whether any state money goes toward funding the practice. Cooper’s order instructs the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to make sure it’s not sending any state or federal funds to people or organizations that use conversion therapy.

Rev. Tom Cash, a pastor in Asheville, said the executive order will send a powerful message to gay and transgender youth — and those who believe they can be “treated” through the practice.

While living in California in his 20s, Cash said he enrolled in an intensive conversion therapy program run by Deliverance Ministries. The 24/7 program tried to arrange his marriage to a woman, told him LGBTQ people have demons, and — even after he chose to depart — left him with years of alcoholism and PTSD.

Cooper’s order, Cash said, will “give a chance for God’s message that he affirms and accepts LGBTQ people just as he created them.”

According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that advocates for gay youth, children who undergo conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.

A lawyer for the Trevor Project, Casey Pick, said in an email that the organization isn’t sure if any conversion therapy programs or practitioners in North Carolina benefits from state funding — but it’s possible.

“We know there are conversion therapy practitioners, licensed and unlicensed, active across North Carolina today,” said Pick, who is the group’s senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs. “While it is difficult to precisely track state funds flowing to this dangerous activity, because conversion therapists are often deceptive in how they describe their practices, we know that the Governor’s order sends a clear message that any such funding is an inappropriate use of North Carolina’s taxpayer dollars, which are meant to heal, not harm.”

And while Cooper’s executive order can only affect state funding for conversion therapy, there is an effort at the General Assembly to ban any sort of conversion therapy being used on children at all — something that groups like the Trevor Project and Equality NC support.

That bill, HB516, would take away the professional license of any therapist, social worker or counselor caught practicing conversion therapy on minors, The News & Observer previously reported.

The bill has a number of Democratic sponsors in both the House and the Senate, but it has not moved out of any committees in either chamber of the Republican-controlled General Assembly since being filed in April. That indicates the bill has little to no chance of passing this year.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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