The Attorney General's Office appeared before the U.S. Court of Appeals Tuesday to uphold Washington's law that bans conversion therapy.
According to Washington state law, children under the age of 18 are protected from being subjected to "conversion therapy", which is described as being a discredited and harmful practice that seeks to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2018, Washington passed SB 5722 banning conversion therapy.
On Tuesday, Brian Tingley, a state-licensed marriage and family therapist, appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit challenging the law. Senior U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan dismissed Tingley’s case in August 2021, recognizing Washington state’s interest "in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and in protecting its minors against exposure to serious harm caused by conversion therapy."
Judge Bryan ruled that the law does not infringe on licensed health professionals’ First Amendment rights, but appropriately prohibits a form of harmful, unprofessional conduct.
However, in federal appeals court Tingley's lawyer argued that professional speech is less protected. "What we would see is no self-inflicted pain, no coercion or compulsion of any sort. We would see nothing but listening, asking and talking," said lawyer Roger Brooks of his client's session(s). "Speech is all we would see."
Assistant Attorney General Cristina Sepe countered by saying the law prohibits treatments that engage with the fixed outcome of trying to change sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity are ineffective and puts minors at significant risk of harm, including elevated risks of suicidality, depression and anxiety," said Sepe.
Marcus James is an author, queer rights activist and considers himself a survivor of conversion therapy. When he was just 14-years-old, he was sent away to live with a family member and undergo religious conversion therapy. His testimony of the painful experience helped pass SB 5722 in 2018.
"My planned trajectory in my life was completely destroyed in that moment. My future was irrevocably, in terms of going to college, anything, my future was destroyed because of conversion therapy," said James. "Conversion therapy, all it breeds is shame, self-harm and suicide."
James said he was part of creating Washington State's first high school Gay Student Alliance (GSA), and his activism would continue on with fighting for same-sex marriage rights and banning conversion therapy.
"I have been an activist my entire life. That’s the thing is what got me sent to conversion therapy was my activism. Starting the state's first and GSA in a public high school in the 90s," said James. "It is mortifying, and we should all be screaming out against this. I’m terrified this is going on today."
This is the third time the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will be asked to uphold a ban on conversion therapy for minors. The court rejected similar challenges to the regulation of conversion therapy in 2014 and 2016.
James shares this message with the community, "There is nothing wrong with you. Nothing. You are perfect and exactly who you are meant to be."