Why Republican Governors Keep Signing LGBTQ “Conversion Therapy” Bans

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval

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On Wednesday, Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill prohibiting mental health professionals in the state from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The Nevada measure comes on the heels of a similar New Mexico ban approved by Republican Gov. Susanna Martinez. Nevada and New Mexico join California, Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and the District of Columbia in outlawing the widely discredited practice of LGBTQ “conversion therapy” for minors.

Sandoval’s signature contributes to a growing bipartisan consensus regarding conversion therapy bans. Remarkably, a full half of state bans on the practice were signed by Republican governors, albeit in blue-to-purple states: Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Illinois’, and Chris Christie signed New Jersey’s shortly before his fall from grace. These governors obviously view the bans as good politics and good law. Yet Republicans in Congress continue to oppose federal legislation outlawing conversion therapy for minors with near uniformity.

This gap between Republican governors and the congressional GOP isn’t entirely surprising. Sandoval, Martinez, Rauner, and Christie were each presented a proposed ban and given two choices: Sign it or veto it. A veto would have created a publicity nightmare by handing Democrats—who, by and large, sponsored the bills in the first place—a winning talking point: We oppose torture; the governor does not. For each governor, quickly and quietly approving the ban was almost certainly the smartest political option.

That, however, doesn’t mean it was the easiest political option. The 2016 Republican Party platform opposed conversion therapy bans for minors, declaring that “we support the right of parents to consent to medical treatment for their minor children.” Plenty of Republican legislators in purple states have also objected to these bans: In New Hampshire, where Democrats have struggled to draw GOP support for a ban, one Republican claimed that conversion therapy helped to “protect social norms”; another said that the proposed ban would “erode religious liberty.” Even New Hampshire’s relatively moderate Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has kept mum on conversion therapy—though he did appoint one of its supporters, Frank Edelblut, to lead the state’s Department of Education. (Not all GOP governors are created equal.)

The battle over conversion therapy represents a clear intraparty schism over the broader question of LGBTQ equality. Centrist governors like Sandoval recognize that “conversion therapy” itself constitutes an affront to LGBTQ dignity: It is, after all, premised on the myth that sexual orientation and gender identity can be forcibly altered by professional therapists who are licensed by the state to treat children. (None of the bills target religious counselors or parents.) By suspending or revoking the license of any therapist who performs this practice, a state refuses to put its imprimatur on borderline torture. It also acknowledges that LGBTQ identities are worthy of respect.

But the Republican Party does not believe that LGBTQ identities merit respect. It continues to oppose marriage equality and trans rights while supporting the legalization of religious-based discrimination against LGBTQ people. As the New Hampshire experience indicates, many Republicans still discuss conversion therapy in terms of religious liberty, endorsing the freedom of therapists to abuse LGBTQ children. On the national level, and in deep red states, Republicans are too obsequious to religious extremists to accept the scientific reality that conversion therapy is pure barbarity.

Some deeply reactionary portion of the country will always resist laws that recognize the equal dignity of LGBTQ people. But these pockets are quickly shrinking, and their influence over the GOP may soon begin to wane. Democrats may be leading the fight against conversion therapy, but Republican governors deserve credit for carrying their bills across the finish line. It is tempting to conclude that the modern Republican Party will forever cater to the cruelest, most ignorant faction of its base—and maybe it will. But the recent victories in Nevada and New Mexico prove that there is a more humane path forward if the fever ever breaks.