Legal research provides grounds to ban conversion therapy for LGBT youth

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 09:39 GMT

LGBT rights NGO, Equality Illinois and international law firm, Kirkland & Ellis successfully joined forces to produce a robust legal research to advocate for the ban of conversion therapy for LGBT youth in Illinois, a partnership facilitated by Trust Law, the pro bono legal programme of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Illinois is now only one of six US jurisdictions with laws which explicitly forbid the use of conversion or reparative therapy, a harmful practice that falsely claims to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The legislative victory resulted in great parts thanks to the relentless advocacy efforts of Equality Illinois - an NGO dedicated to advancing LGBT rights and social justice.

In December 2014, TrustLaw connected Equality Illinois to a team of lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis, facilitating a pro bono research partnership looking at federal and state laws regarding the ban of gay conversion therapy as well as gay and transgender panic defence.  Gay or transgender panic defence is a tactic invoked against charges of assault or murder, wherein the defendant claims to have acted in a state of temporary insanity triggered by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

In May 2015 the Youth Mental Health Protection Act was passed, banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors in the State of Illinois. Equality Illinois has also been advocating for a bill to make gay panic defence inadmissible as a legal defence in the courts of Illinois, which they hope to pass in the upcoming legislative session.

Despite lack of scientific evidence on their efficacy to change sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT youths have long been subjected to conversion therapies, fuelled by the perception that being gay or transgender is a mental disease that should be cured.  Drugs that induce nausea or paralysis and electric shock therapy were common practices in the past, while contemporary methods include psychoanalytic and disciplinary measures such as making individuals snap their wrists with rubber bands to suppress sexual impulse.

In the early 1970s, psychologist George Alan Rekers claimed to have ‘cured’ five-year-old Kirk Murphy by punishing him for exhibiting feminine traits through a government funded programme. In adulthood, Murphy revealed his homosexuality and took his own life at the age of 38. His tragic fate is just one example of the dangerous effects of conversion therapy.

Scientific research sheds light on the grave medical, psychological and other harms caused by conversion therapy and societal prejudice such as depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide.  Although major medical and mental health organisations in the US, such as the Pan American Health Organization or the American Medical Association have long condemned conversion therapy, licensed mental health providers in jurisdictions without a legislative ban continue to resort to this practice.

Angelo Barone, Chief Operating Officer of Equality Illinois, says: “We are incredibly pleased with the outcome of this partnership, which was possible through Trust Law and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Kirkland & Ellis’ research provided us with the factual foundation needed to educate legislators on this important issue, which was critical in passing the legislation. This law literally saves lives.”

This project won the 2016 TrustLaw Impact Award.  

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