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In South Carolina, a battle rages over conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth 

The prospect of an eternity in hell can be quite persuasive to a teenager growing up in the religious and conservative South.  

At 15 years old, South Carolina-native Dylan Gunnels approached a trusted family member who he hoped would help him reconcile two important and, what seemed to him,  incompatible parts of his life: his faith and sexuality.

That family member, whom Gunnels does not wish to identify, told him that homosexuality was a sin that he needed to be rescued from that sin, and that healing from “same-sex attraction” was possible.

As an impressionable teen who loved the church and Jesus and respected his family, Gunnels listened.

His family took him to conversion therapy, a controversial practice that has for more than 100 years used various techniques in an attempt to alter a person’s sexuality.

“That family member was the first person that I felt like I could talk to, and their understanding of the faith at the time was there’s heaven and hell, and that homosexuality is a sin,” said 29-year-old Gunnels who now lives in Columbia, South Carolina. “But my experience wasn’t as extreme as some of the things that you may hear or see in movies, like Boy Erased. I wasn’t beat with Bibles. I didn’t go to shock therapy. It wasn’t the extremes, but I certainly experienced severe psychological harm.”

And in 2019, he became the first openly gay person to run for a seat on Columbia’s city council.

Although he ultimately lost, Gunnels would later help achieve something that few places in the South can claim.

Columbia is now one of the few Southern jurisdictions banning conversion therapy, specifically outlawing licensed therapists from practicing on minors.

Within the last year, Canada and France have passed national bans on conversion therapy. Last year, England announced it would ban the practice, although the nation excluded transgender people, which has led to protests from trans-rights advocates. The United States has not considered such a ban at the federal level. Several states, most of them with Democratic governors or legislatures, prohibit conversion therapy for minors. The practice continues largely unabated in the South, where political conservatives control the levers of government.

As the swell of support for anti-LGBTQ legislation grows in mostly conservative states, it may put Columbia’s ban in danger.

GAY RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS

Gunnels finished in third place in his city council race, but Howard Duvall, the man who beat him, took notice of comments he had made about conversion therapy during the election.

In 2020,  Duvall, a 78-year-old eucharist minister and at-large member of the city council, turned to Gunnels for help.

“The Human Rights Campaign puts out a rating for municipalities, basically asking how affirming and accepting your community is. How inclusive is it and what legislative actions are being put forward and then puts out a score,” said Gunnels. 

“So Howard came to me and said, ‘You know our score isn’t good and we’ve got some improvement to do.’ And that started the conversation around conversion therapy in Columbia. And now Howard and I have a great working relationship.”

The annual municipal equality index, now in its 10th year, measures more than 500 cities on a scale of 1 to 100. The index examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are for LGBTQ+ people who live and work there. Cities are rated based on non-discrimination laws, the municipality as an employer, municipal services, law enforcement and leadership on LGBTQ+ equality.

Columbia’s score in 2018 was in the 70s, a respectable score in the South where similar-sized cities recorded far lower scores. During the pandemic it dropped to 59. The mayor and city council, who had hopes of attracting younger people to help continue the revitalization of the city, hit the panic button.

“We decided with Dylan’s help that we could pick up points in a number of areas, the most controversial being a ban on gay conversion therapy for minors,” said Tameika Isaac Devine, a local attorney, former councilwoman and former mayoral candidate. “We believed it was harmful to young people and that we had a duty to at least do something that could help. But the argument that persuaded some of our more skeptical city council members was that we’re the capital city and a growing southern city that should be a place where young people feel safe and assured that their leaders are creating a more open city that embraces equality and diversity.”

While the first reading of the new ordinance passed unanimously, religious groups quickly got wind of the plan and started a campaign, according to Devine. Slowly, members of the city council began to receive emails and complaints about the proposal. Some of them got cold feet.  

“When the second reading came up, folks wanted to postpone it,” said Devine. “They postponed it for a month or so, but then we did a public hearing on it again and at that public hearing it narrowly passed.”

Medical professionals and religious leaders offered varying opinions on whether or not the ban was appropriate. Some came prepared with decades of scientific data indicating that conversion therapy was not only useless but harmful.

“I can tell you emphatically that the only outcomes that I have seen from conversion therapy have been trauma and suicidality,” said Dr. Edwin Hayes, M.D. during the first hearing on May 18. “There are many scientific papers that reinforce the idea that there is no benefit to conversion therapy and if anything, we see that it causes harm, especially in the youth.”

By the time the second hearing came around about a month later, most of the comments made by the public were firmly against the ban, with a majority of speakers raising concerns about freedom of speech and religious liberty.

“My concern is that it will muzzle the helping professionals or at least intimidate them to the point that they are afraid to help young people who sincerely want help,” said Pastor Terrell Roberts on June 15th. 

Dr. Carl Broggi, another skeptic of the city’s ban, said “either the Bible is true or it’s not but it does speak against transgender behavior and homosexual behavior.”

Since Gunnels, Duvall and Devine intervened on a range of issues, including the conversion therapy ban, the city’s score has since risen to 82.  Devine is no longer a member of the council.

A DANGEROUS PRACTICE

Gunnels’ experience of gay conversion therapy is a familiar one for many children growing up in evangelical households. To date, it’s estimated that nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the country have undergone some kind of conversion therapy, according to a 2019 report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. About half received the therapy as adolescents.

Techniques used in the past include icepick lobotomies, chemical castration, and a mix of aversion therapies, such as shock therapy, nausea inducing drugs and homoerotic stimuli, all administered simultaneously. Today, techniques are limited to psychoanalytic therapy, prayer, group support, peer pressure and regular counseling.

But efforts to change a person’s sexuality are largely futile.

Decades of research conclude that sexual orientation is stable and unchanging for the vast majority of people and cannot be changed using psychotherapy or other techniques, according to a 2012 report by the American Psychological Association.

Mental health professionals have also agreed that the practice causes enormous harm, while the country’s largest psychological and psychiatric institutions have condemned it. Despite seemingly vanishing from public view, the practice continues to be used within churches and even among licensed therapists throughout the country, according to Gunnels.

“It’s very much still going on and it’s very much behind closed doors,” said Gunnels. “If you’re a licensed therapist, you’re not going to openly talk about the fact that you use conversion therapy practices, but there are some that still do. And religious institutions, like the Catholic and Baptist churches, will never call it conversion therapy and they’ll no longer use terms like ex-gay ministry because they know the connotation that it has. But they will talk about it in manipulative ways. How they want you to be healed, to be whole and guide you through an opportunity to be closer to God and be your full self.”

While conversion still exists today, a growing tide has turned against the practice, starting with New Jersey in August 2013. Nationwide, 20 states have completely outlawed its use on children while five others have a partial ban. Washington, D.C., is the only jurisdiction that bans the practice on adults.

In the South, few states or municipalities have attempted to ban it.

Virginia passed the same type of ban as Columbia in July 2020. However, the ban is unable to stop religious entities from practicing it. That is protected by the First Amendment’s right to freedom of religion and is extended to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. And more recently, the ban on licensed professionals has been challenged under freedom of speech laws by equating conversion therapy to mere conversation.

North Carolina put a ban in place prohibiting state funding being used for conversion therapy in Aug. 2019.

And between June 2016 and April 2020, more than 20 counties, municipalities and communities in Florida attempted to ban the practice in all its forms. But those efforts were struck down by a federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Three municipalities in Kentucky have also banned the practice, but have been challenged in the courts. And that’s what makes Columbia’s ban rare. It doesn’t enjoy the support of the conservative-led state and so far, has not been struck down by legislative or court action.  

At least not at first.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Not long after the Columbia ordinance was passed, the state’s conservative legislators moved into gear.

State Sen. Josh Kimbrell, a former Christian talk radio host from Spartanburg, South Carolina, introduced a bill known as the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act to specifically protect “individuals and entities from civil, criminal, or administrative liability and from discrimination for exercising their personal right of conscience,” according to the text of the bill.

Effectively, the bill would usurp Columbia’s ban and prevent other local jurisdictions from taking similar action. Kimbrell’s bill is currently in committee and will likely face scrutiny during this legislative session, according to Gunnels. The law would effectively nullify Columbia’s ordinance.

Kimbrell, who did not return phone calls and messages for this story, has said that Columbia’s ordinance is unconstitutional, adding that the government doesn’t have a right to legislate what a private practitioner can say to a client.

“This ordinance will impose a fine on professional counselors if they do not affirm LGBTQ preferences, even if doing so would violate the therapist’s deeply held religious beliefs,” noted Kimbrell in a public statement in May 2021.

He later told the State newspaper that he found Columbia’s ordinance particularly troublesome for “a child who is under the direction of that child’s parents.”

But should the legislation fail, Kimbrell and others who oppose Columbia’s ban have a back up plan.

At Kimbrell’s request, South Carolina’s attorney general Alan Wilson offered a lengthy legal opinion on Columbia’s ban in a Feb. 2022, stating the ordinance is unconstitutional.  “While courts have reached varying conclusions regarding whether an ordinance [or statute] banning conversion therapy violates the First Amendment, we think a court is likely to conclude that the First Amendment is infringed by the Columbia ordinance,” he wrote in the opinion. 

Aside from the potential constitutional issues with Columbia’s ordinance, the issue of taking rights away from parents has angered others in South Carolina.

“What if a parent has a child who has genuine questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity?” said Dave Wilson, president and executive director of Palmetto Family Council, a Columbia-based religious lobbying group that focuses on implementing conservative Christian ideals in South Carolina state law, especially concerning sexual morality. 

“And if the therapies being presented are not affirmative therapies, but instead are bringing a Christian worldview, a biblical worldview, a different worldview than those that are being prescribed, then we end up having a situation where you have to beg the question whether or not the wishes of parents and getting the treatment that they need for their minor children is being superseded by a government law.”

He added: “And what about the limitations it puts on free speech and religious liberty or the rights and responsibilities of parents to make decisions for their minor children who live within their home, and are their responsibility to begin with?”

Although the trauma stemming from those early adolescent experiences is still with Gunnels today, he has grown into something of a walking paradox. Now a leading voice within the LGBTQ community in Columbia, Gunnels has found a way to remain dedicated to his faith and church.

That ideology of compromise has allowed him to create an organization that helps others reconcile their faith and life within the LGBTQ community without having to experience the divisive nature of conversion therapy. 

The Agape Table is a Columbia-based group that fosters healing for queer people of faith and their friends in South Carolina. That takes place through cultivated spaces of education, vulnerability and intentional dialogue, according to Gunnels. 

“We’re working really hard to bridge the gap between folks who are trying to reconcile those two worlds like I was,” he said. 

But within that reconciliation Gunnels has also found room for forgiveness in his own life. 

“This is the hard part for some folks to understand,” said Gunnels, talking about the family member who sent him to gay conversion therapy. “I give them grace. They didn’t know what they were doing at the time and they don’t have that belief anymore. We’ve both grown as people and come a long way together.”

Read also: What is LGBTQ ‘conversion therapy’ and why is still prevalent in the South, U.S.?

Read also: A Mississippi LGBTQ conversion therapy story takes center stage.

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