“Conversion therapy” refers to treatment that attempts to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

It’s widely discredited by psychiatrists and psychologists yet persists as doctrine among some conservative Christian groups.

Now, the Hawaii Legislature is wading into the debate. Senate Bill 2204 would prohibit teachers and licensed professional counselors from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with a person under 18.

“The legislature finds that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is not a disease, disorder, illness, deficiency, or shortcoming,” the bill states. “Major professional associations of mental health practitioners and researchers in the United States have recognized this fact for nearly forty years.”

Considering the heated disputes that arose with same-sex marriage legislation and sex-ed curriculum in recent months, the conversion therapy bill could trigger similar dissension.

So controversial is SB 2204 that the legislative group that is backing the bill, the Keiki Caucus, had trouble agreeing on sponsorship. Bills need the support of 75 percent of the 30-member caucus.

“It barely made it,” said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, co-convener of the caucus. “A lot of members didn’t want to sign it.”

In fact, only Chun Oakland’s name is on the bill. Rep. John Mizuno, the House vice speaker, will likely introduce a House companion.

The senator acknowledged the conversion therapy bill would be controversial.

“Definitely,” she said. “I don’t know which committee it would be referred to, or whether it will even get a hearing. But I am willing to have a conversation.”

It’s not unusual that the Keiki Caucus is at the center of potentially controversial legislation.

Civil Beat

Rep. John Mizuno and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland.

For example, the caucus has long backed marriage equality, even though several members did not vote in favor of same-sex marriage.1

Other Keiki Caucus legislative victories over the years include increasing funding for more services and shelters for children and their families, establishing the Rental Housing Trust Fund, enacting a law to prohibit children under 13 from riding in the cargo bed of a pickup truck, expanding health insurance eligibility for children and teens under the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), mandating the use of booster seats for young children, requiring that police departments and Child Welfare Services communicate with each other, making permanent the funding of the Department of Health’s Poison Center and creating and funding the Child-At-Risk Evaluation (CARE) program to provide children who are entering foster care with comprehensive health evaluations.

The caucus was launched in 1990 when Chun Oakland, serving her first term as a House representative, was inspired by a discussion with an elected official from another state while attending a conference in New York. She formed the Keiki Caucus with then-Rep. Dennis Arakaki, a fellow Democrat and longtime advocate for children’s issues.

Arakaki, who retired from the House a few years ago, later served as executive director for Hawaii Family Forum, the voice of the Roman Catholic Church of Hawaii and a major opponent of gay marriage. Caucus members include Republicans who, while they may differ on many issues, share a desire to assess child well-being in Hawaii and to work together on legislative and community solutions.

“I think the caucus does one of the most important things that we need to be looking at as a Legislature — what affects our kids,” said Rep. Beth Fukumoto, a caucus member and House minority floor leader. “There are important issues like helping out with mental illness and youth suicide, and having opt-out program at schools.”

Fukumoto said she was not familiar with SB 2204 and could not comment on the legislation.

2014 Agenda

This year’s Keiki Caucus agenda, reproduced below, includes priorities such as asking the state Office of Youth Services to coordinate a five-year “safe places for youth” pilot program where kids can access safety and services (Chun Oakland said the proposal is in response to bullying and abuse), to amend Hawaii’s sexuality health education law (lawmakers want clearer guidance on a comprehensive approach and greater public access to the curricula) and to authorize the Department of Education and the Hawaii Community Development Authority to establish school and community gardens (Chun Oakland credits Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran,a caucus member, for the idea).

So, why take on something as contentious as conversion therapy?

The Keiki Caucus was persuaded in part by IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy group “devoted to the protection of democratic ideals,” and Girl Fest Hawaii, a 501(c)3 focused on preventing violence against women and girls.

Kathryn Xian of Girl Fest Hawaii (and a candidate for the U.S. Congress) said the bill’s sponsors are well aware of potential backlash. But she said conversion therapy contributes to suicidal tendencies among youth and the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community in general. She said children should not be forced into heterosexuality against their will.

“We feel strongly that this is a type of child abuse,” said Xian, who said she knows of a 15-year-old lesbian who has has “some very troubling outright abuse from a very Christian counselor.”

SB 2204 cites its research:

In one study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported high levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection. The legislature therefore concludes that all minors, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender minors who experience family rejection, should be protected against sexual orientation change efforts by teachers and counseling professionals.

Should the bill become law, teachers and counselors who engage in sexual orientation change efforts will be subject to disciplinary action. If the legislation is heard, Xian said she expected the language referring to teachers would be removed because, she said, the DOE licenses mental-health professionals to work in schools.

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