Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday issued an executive order discouraging conversion therapy and directing commonwealth agencies to discourage attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
The executive order, signed during a public ceremony on Tuesday, directs state offices to promote evidence-based medical practices for LGBTQ communities and update policies to support LGBTQ employees and commonwealth residents.
The directive — which does not implement an outright ban — comes amid a surge in anti-gay rhetoric and fears of possible rollbacks to constitutional protections for same-sex relationships after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“We have a crisis here,” Wolf, a Democrat, said. “And it’s unacceptable. It is unacceptable for all of us. Political attacks on LGBTQ communities are not happening in a vacuum. They’re happening in our towns, and they’re happening in our schools. And they’re increasing the danger our kids experience from bullying and community violence.”
A survey by the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ people, estimates that 508,892 LGBTQ youth in the United States were at risk of being subjected to conversion therapy in 2021. Roughly 13% of LGBTQ youth nationwide reported being subjected to conversion therapy, and the majority — 83% — were under age 18.
Additional research shows that LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year and experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Thirty-six percent said they were physically threatened or harmed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Young people should never be punished for being who they are, and that’s what so-called conversion therapy does while causing sometimes irreparable trauma to individuals,” Rafael Alvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, said.
Carla Christopher Wilson, a Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs member, outlined her experience with conversion therapy. Confessing a teenage crush to a religious leader in what she thought was a “safe space” resulted in a week-long, out-of-state retreat “with no idea what was coming,” she said.
“I’m still ashamed to admit that it didn’t even take the whole week for them to break me,” she said, describing two days in a lightless, closet-sized room. “Pressed to the floor by more hands than I could count, I begged any human or any god that would listen to save me, even change me, if it would make it stop. But I did survive.”
Conversion therapy has been debunked by medical and psychological experts, citing significant psychological distress and long-term harm.
More than 20 states have passed laws against the practice. In Pennsylvania, some local governments have banned conversion therapy.
But Wolf urged legislative action to outlaw the procedure.
State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) thanked Wolf for the executive action, saying the outgoing governor has worked to protect LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians from this “horrific practice.”
Sims, one of two openly gay lawmakers in the Legislature, previously introduced a bill banning the practice. But Democrats’ efforts have stalled in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“Our most vulnerable, our children who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity, should be saved from the fate of so many others who came before them,” Sims said in a written statement.
Marley Parish is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.