by CHRIS ROGERS
In a move supporters called a victory for gay and transgender rights, the Winona City Council voted 6-0 on Monday night to ban conversion “therapy” in the city. Winona is the fifth city in Minnesota to outlaw it, while efforts to pass a statewide ban have narrowly failed.
Conversion “therapy” is the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been discredited as unethical and seriously harmful by the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association, and Winona State University’s Counselor Education Department and Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center joined citizen-activists and the city’s Human Rights Commission in encouraging the City Council to ban it. A new ordinance will make it an administrative offense punishable by a fine for mental health professionals in Winona to subject people under 18 to the practice.
“The state still has not passed a ban, so we did in order to take action now and make sure children in the community are not subjected to this ‘therapy’ — it’s not therapy — and to stop it before it even starts,” City Council member Eileen Moeller said in an interview. Moeller, Mayor Mark Peterson, and council members George Borzyskowski, Pam Eyden, Paul Schollmeier, and Al Thurley voted for the ban without discussion or debate. City Council Michelle Alexander was absent.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Winonan Tyler Treptow-Bowman said, who has been helping push for a ban since May 2019 — first unsuccessfully at the state level, then at city hall. The local prohibition is meant to both prevent conversion “therapy” practitioners from setting up shop in Winona, send a message about Winona’s values, and put pressure on the state lawmakers to follow suit. In addition to its legal effects, the ban tells LGBTQ youth “that we acknowledge you are a person and have value, and that’s a really important thing to do for people who are vulnerable in a community,” Moeller said. “[I’m feeling] a lot of relief to see that all of our work over the past year has come to fruition, and that we’ve seen some change happen and some significant change,” Treptow-Bowman stated, describing Winona’s vote as part of movement across the state.
In 2019, a statewide ban on mental health professionals practicing conversion “therapy” on minors and vulnerable adults nearly became law. Like Winona’s ordinance, the state proposal would not have applied to religious leaders who are not mental health professionals or to consenting adults seeking out conversion “therapy” on their own. The measure passed the majority-Democrat House of Representatives, but failed in a 30-34 party-line vote in the Republican-led Senate. The Star Tribune reported that Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) led the decision to vote down the ban and that one of Gazelka’s children said they were sent as a teen to therapists who scorned same-sex attraction. During an emotionally charged debate on the Senate floor Senator Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) said, “Conversion therapy that utilizes aversive or coercive techniques, that has a predetermined end point for the goal in people that aren’t yet 18 — I just — it sickens me. And yet, I understand that different people have different perspectives and the process of legislation is incremental … I think Senator Dibble’s language is a little too expansive for me.” He added, “I don’t think we’re done on this issue yet. We haven’t found the common ground that makes it work for everybody.”
Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) and Senator Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) voted against the ban in April 2019. Now, both of their home cities — Winona and Red Wing — have passed conversion “therapy” prohibitions of their own.
Treptow-Bowman said that, since that April 2019 vote, he was frustrated by his efforts to get senators to take action in support of a statewide ban. “I don’t think someone’s safety is a partisan issue,” he stated. He said his efforts led him to this conclusion: “I don’t see a path moving forward for a statewide ban until we get different representation in office.”
Cat Salonek, director of organizing and policy at the LGBTQ rights advocacy group OutFront Minnesota, said her organization would try again to pass a state ban in the 2021 legislative session.