Once Again Wielding Executive Authority, Cuomo Curbs Anti-Gay Therapy

Governor Andrew Cuomo, at an Empire State Pride Agenda dinner last fall, announcing an earlier executive directive regarding transgender rights. | KEVIN P. COUGHLIN/ OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR

Governor Andrew Cuomo, at an Empire State Pride Agenda dinner last fall, announcing an earlier executive directive regarding transgender rights. | KEVIN P. COUGHLIN/ OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR

Governor Andrew Cuomo moved to severely limit “conversion therapy” for minors in New York State using his executive authority in the absence of action in the Republican-controlled State Senate on legislation –– already passed in the Democrat-led Assembly –– to completely ban it.

“Conversion therapy is a hateful and fundamentally flawed practice that is counter to everything this state stands for,” Cuomo said in his February 6 release. “We will not allow the misguided and the intolerant to punish LGBT young people for simply being who they are.”

At the governor’s direction, “The New York State Department of Financial Services is issuing regulations barring New York insurers from providing coverage for conversion therapy given to an individual under the age of 18. Additionally, the New York State Department of Health is prohibiting coverage of conversion therapy under New York’s Medicaid program and the New York State Office of Mental Health is issuing regulations prohibiting facilities under its jurisdiction from providing conversion therapy treatment to minors,” his release said.

While four states ban practice, governor is nation’s first to unilaterally protect LGBT youth

Alphonso David, Cuomo’s out gay chief counsel, told Gay City News that when the Senate blocked out gay West Side Senator Brad Hoylman’s bill to ban the practice, “the governor instructed me to address the problem through regulation.” He said that he reached out to insurance providers, business associations, medical providers, the Departments of Health, Mental Health, and Financial Services, and the American Psychological Association among others, including survivors of the practice.

“It is deplorable what these kids went through,” David said. “We came to the conclusion that this practice should be banned in New York and that we should take appropriate legal steps to do it.”

The governor’s action, he added, “makes it nearly impossible to provide conversion therapy in New York. This was the most aggressive position we could take.”

California, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington, DC, have laws banning conversion therapy for minors, and 17 states, including New York, have bills pending to do so. But Cuomo is the first governor to do as much as he is able to do by executive action.

“We are engaged with general counsels in other states” to take similar action, David said.

When the bill to ban the practice passed the Assembly in 2014 with bipartisan support, chief sponsor Deborah Glick, an out lesbian West Villager, said, “We stand with those, who as professionals understand the serious damage that has been imposed on young people by deceitful state-licensed therapists who offer a claim, refuted 40 years ago, that being LGBT is a mental illness that needs to be cured.”

Glick, Hoylman, and his Senate co-sponsor Michael Gianaris of Queens held a forum last May on their bills to ban conversion therapy, hearing from two dozen witnesses and concluding that it is practiced in New York, that the practice is “ineffective and degrading” and can lead to “depression and suicidal thoughts,” and that experts agree it should be banned. Matthew Shurka testified that he was subjected to it for five years starting at age 16 and “was told that there was no such thing as homosexuality and that men experienced sexual attraction to other men because of a ‘void in their masculinity,’” a report prepared based on the forum said. “He was provided pornography and Viagra to aid him in pursuing heterosexual sexual encounters.”

Now 21, Shurka has come out as gay.

While homosexuality was indeed removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s index of mental disorders in 1973, it is only in recent years that mental health associations and elected officials have moved to ban conversion therapy and only for minors. It is mostly offered by right-wing practitioners associated with religions that condemn homosexual activity.

One practitioner, JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), was found guilty of consumer fraud and “unconscionable” business practices in New Jersey last June. The “therapy” included having patients strip naked in front of the “therapist” as well as instructing a patient in a group to have another patient play his abuser and shout statements such as “I won’t love you anymore if you don’t give me blowjobs.”

JONAH moved its operations to Israel –– which discourages but does not ban the practice –– and was reported this week to be using it on American rabbinical students in Orthodox seminaries.

Hoylman said legislation is still needed here.

“Our bill with Assemblymember Glick and Senator Gianaris would forbid state-sanctioned mental health providers from practicing sexual orientation change efforts and penalize them for doing so. They would be fined and could lose their licenses.”

He said that “a lot of conversion therapy is underground.”

Hoylman cautioned, “Executive actions only last as long as the executive” –– a future governor could reverse Cuomo’s order. He said his bill would have 32 votes — a majority — if it were allowed on the floor, but Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan has refused to give it a vote. Hoylman reported that there are more than 20 pro-LGBT bills stalled in the Senate now, including GENDA, the transgender rights bill that Cuomo addressed through executive action last year.

The Senate has a chance to have a Democratic majority if the special election in south Nassau County to replace convicted Senator Dean Skelos, the former Republican majority leader, on April 19 is won by the Democrat, Assemblymember Todd Kaminsky, over GOP attorney Christopher McGrath. But several rogue Democratic senators, including Jeff Klein of the Bronx, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, Diane Savino of Staten Island, and Tony Avella of Queens, who have caucused with Republicans in the past to keep the chamber from having Democratic leadership, have refused to commit to support Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester as majority leader if their party wins a majority. That sort of betrayal is virtually unheard of in any other state legislature but is not uncommon in the New York State Senate, notorious for its corruption and self-dealing, particularly in the last decade.

Veteran gay activist Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, hopes that governors “throughout the country” will follow Cuomo’s lead on this issue. He added, however, “Bad psychiatric care should be outlawed. It would be logical that this would extend to religious organizations that teach gay people self-hatred and destroy their lives. The government needs to stop funding hate groups. There doesn’t seem to be any adherence in the city or the state to the constitutional separation of church and state.”

The New York State health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, said in a release, “The children of New York deserve to be shielded from this detrimental treatment that is rooted in archaic beliefs.”

Most of those beliefs are rooted in religion, and while the governor’s action does not reach into counseling by religious leaders, it does apply to religious practitioners seeking third-party reimbursement.

David said, “To the extent that religious organizations are engaging in practices that we have repudiated, they can no longer use state dollars to support these practices.”

Millions in state and city funds go to religiously affiliated organizations to provide social services, including religions that condemn homosexuality. David said that recipients of government funding cannot use it to “proselytize.” He said, “To the extent that organizations are providing services inconsistent with anti-discrimination laws, we can take appropriate action in those areas.”

Cuomo has been pushing unsuccessfully for hundreds of millions in tax credits to be made available to private and parochial schools, legislation opposed by Hoylman and Glick. The Irish government now requires state-funded Catholic schools –– the vast majority of schools there –– not to discriminate against LGBT staff. No such provision is attached to Cuomo’s tax credit proposal.