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Erie County Legislature passes ban on conversion therapy for minors

National Public Radio

Erie County legislators Thursday banned a controversial technique called gay conversion therapy. The widely discredited program claims it can "cure" a gay child and turn them straight.

Local advocates of the ban say hundreds of thousands of young people over the years have been forced through the program around the country, sustaining permanent damage, including suicides. Legislator Patrick Burke has spent years pushing for the ban and saw it pass unanimously.

“Simply put, this is a child protection measure,” the South Buffalo Democrat said. “Referring to this practice as ‘therapy’ obscures the fact that it involves the abuse of children."

He said it is not clear how much of a problem it is in Erie County.

"Like advocates have said to us, it's an underground industry, so we can't really vet how large of a problem it is," Burke said. "I think it's pretty clear from reports that for every conversion therapy site that we know about there's a hundred that we don't, so it's literally designed for us not to know about it."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Legislator Patrick Burke proposed the ban on conversion therapy.

Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams said she had not heard of conversion therapy until Burke originally sponsored the bill. When she started to do some research, she discovered residents of her East Side district who had been through the program and did not like what it did to them.

"I had to do research. I had to talk to people and I do know individuals, they're from the community," Miller-Williams said. "I have individuals within the first legislative district and they came forth publicly and they testified they had experienced it in their younger lives and as adults. So while I'm not comfortable giving the individual's names, I do know individuals who have unfortunately, personally gone through the process."

Stonewall Democrats of Western New York President Bryan Ball said the approval suggests some major changes in this community.

"What happened here today clearly shows that there is a change in this community," Ball said, "and that this legislation body as a county is willing to cross party lines and, what some people would like to say, divide us and take a firm, united stance on this issue and to protect LGBT kids from this terrible, discredited abuse that is conversion therapy."

The measure now goes to Erie County Executive Poloncarz. If signed, Erie County would be the first upstate New York county to pass such a measure.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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