Conversion therapy is a psychological or spiritual intervention used to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay or bisexual to straight. The practice has been condemned by LGBTQ advocates and allies. Banning conversion therapy on minors has become law in several states, such as California, Illinois, and New Jersey, but it's still legal in much of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County.
But DeFazio’s opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary election, Bethany Hallam, is wondering why DeFazio hasn’t already introduced a law banning the practice. The city of Pittsburgh banned conversion therapy on minors in December 2016, and several other Pennsylvania municipalities have since followed suit.
“[DeFazio] should introduce the legislation he promised to introduce, and he should do it at the next council meeting on March 5th,” said Hallam in a press release. “It’s a simple piece of legislation that quickly passed through city council, and there is no reason to wait a moment longer.”
DeFazio is up for re-election this year for his Allegheny County Council at-large seat. He has served as council president since 2014. Hallam, a Democrat, is challenging him for that seat and they will face off in the May primary elections.
DeFazio said conversion therapy is “morally wrong and should be illegal.” He said he has been looking into county council’s ability to pass a ban, and if able, would plan to introduce legislation.
“I am proud of my record on issues affecting the LGBTQIA community,” said DeFazio in a statement. “It was an honor to cast the deciding vote to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Allegheny County and to create the Human Relations Commission which seeks to ensure that all are afforded equal protection regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
DeFazio co-sponsored that bill in 2008 and it passed by a vote of 8-6 in 2009.
In his answer to the questionnaire, DeFazio claims that he guided that effort as council president. “As council president, I led the effort to establish the Human Relations Commission which seeks to ensure that all are afforded equal protection regardless of sex, race or sexual orientation,” wrote DeFazio in the questionnaire.
But DeFazio was not council president when that bill was introduced, discussed, and eventually passed. Current Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald was council president during that period from 2008 to 2009. And the bill was introduced by county councilor Amanda Green (who now goes by Amanda Green-Hawkins).
Additionally, it appears this is first year DeFazio has sought the endorsement of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, the county’s largest LGBTQ political organization. DeFazio didn't submit a questionnaire in 2015 and he didn't receive an endorsement in 2011, even though he ran unopposed that year for his at-large seat. According to LGBTQ blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, DeFazio didn’t attend or send a surrogate to the endorsement meeting in 2007.
Hallam questioned the timing of DeFazio’s push to advocate for the LGBTQ community, saying he has had 19 years on county council to advocate and pass legislation to protect LGBTQ county residents. She is calling for DeFazio to introduce a bill banning conversion therapy county-wide at the March 5 county council meeting.
“The stories of those who have survived so-called conversion ‘therapy’ are graphic, gruesome, and painful,” said Hallam. “We can very easily begin the legislative process to make sure it never happens again, but it requires the council president to take action, now.”
Allegheny County, like any municipality in Pennsylvania that can levy civil fines, apparently has the ability to pass and enforce restrictions on practitioners who might institute conversion therapy. The city of Pittsburgh, for example, institutes a $300 fine for licensed medical professionals who practice conversion therapy. Philadelphia fines practitioners up to $2000.
A 2017 poll from Hart Research Associates shows that 54 percent of Pennsylvanians would support a package of statewide bills that would offer LGBTQ protections, including non-discrimination protections in employment, housing, public accommodation, foster care and adoption, as well as banning conversion therapy.
Both DeFazio's and Hallam's Steel City Stonewall Democrats questionnaires can be read in full below.