North Carolina became the first state in the South to ban state funding for conversion therapy for minors on Aug. 2 after Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order preventing the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services from supporting the practice.
This comes as a win to progressive policy groups in the state after attempts to end conversion therapy, the practice of attempting to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity, stalled out in the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year.
“Being the first one in the South with this type of action on the state level is huge,” said Allison Scott, director of policy and programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality. “That shows that the momentum is there, and it also shows how much support it gathers."
Though the state will no longer fund conversion therapy for minors, the medically discredited practice will remain legal in North Carolina. The American Medical Association and American Psychological Association both openly oppose conversion therapy for causing what the APA describes as a “significant risk of harm.”
“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,” Cooper said in a tweet.
While the department’s budgeting practice makes it unclear how much cash ends up in the hands of conversion therapy groups, the state has ties to the practice — its budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 includes a provision of $500,000 to NeighborHealth, a health care organization partnered with pro-conversion therapy Raleigh Church of the Apostles.
Scott said it doesn't matter how much the state spends on the practice because she thinks it should end.
Protect Our Youth NC, a joint anti-conversion therapy coalition of North Carolina activist groups, helped file three bills last March in an attempt to pass more comprehensive protections for LGBTQ+ people, one of which was a total ban on conversion therapy statewide.
N.C. Rep. Susan Fisher, D-District 114, a primary sponsor of the anti-conversion therapy bill, said she was pleased to hear the news of Cooper’s executive order and attributed her bill’s lack of traction to Republican committee control.
"Right now, we are in a time where the leadership is sort of picking and choosing what they will hear and what they won't based on fear as much as anything, and a lack of knowledge,” Fisher said.
The self-described progressive Public Policy Polling found that 80 percent of North Carolinians support a total ban on conversion therapy for minors. Equality NC and Campaign for Southern Equality commissioned the poll in February.
"We don’t have to see some dramatic shift, we don't have to hang our hopes on having a huge change,” Scott said. “We just have to get our legislators to see that more than three-fourths of their constituents are behind ending this practice."
Both Scott and Fisher emphasized the role of grassroots organizations in promoting change in North Carolina. Protect Our Youth NC’s coalition includes many North Carolina-based clergy members and mental health professionals that Scott said create the momentum behind the ban.
Legislative change, however, will likely not occur without a change in committee leadership. Fisher’s bill died in committee because it missed the crossover deadline – the deadline for legislation to move to the other chamber – because committee leaders did not push it through. This means that, in order to be reconsidered, the legislation must be introduced in the next session.
"I feel it's very important to keep the conversation going,” Fisher said. “I won't let up, and hopefully, we will find a committee in the next long session to hear the bill.”
Though Cooper’s executive order is not as extensive as the policy Scott and other activists wanted, she said she is still satisfied.
“It's the equivalent of running a marathon,” Scott said. "When you see some significant form of milepost tick by and you're like, 'Wow, I'm farther than I thought.' That's what this feels like.”
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