Fighting back tears, Representative Celia Israel told the Texas House Public Health Committee on Wednesday that she nearly committed suicide at age 17 because she didn’t think she could live openly as a lesbian.
The Austin Democrat’s emotional testimony came in support of her effort to curtail the practice of “gay conversion therapy.” Under House Bill 517, the state could take disciplinary action against licensed therapists who attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors. Israel has filed the legislation in three consecutive sessions, but this year was the first time it was granted a hearing.
“I thank God that I was not the subject of this type of conversion therapy, but then again, I didn’t have the courage as a minor to speak the words, ‘I’m a lesbian,’” she said. “It took many, many years for me to find that strength. I bring you this bill for all those Texas kids who do have the strength to say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m gay,’ and I ask you to stand with them.”
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Mike Hendrix, an openly gay marketing professional from Austin, testified that he was 7 years old when he told his parents he had been sexually abused by a pastor who was a friend of his father’s. They responded by sending him to conversion therapy, saying he was “possessed by demons of homosexuality.”
Hendrix, now 40, told the committee that he was forced to strip naked, placed in isolation, and beaten. He was also made to hold up bricks with his arms outstretched, listen to anti-gay propaganda, and sleep surrounded by images of emaciated men dying from AIDS. He received such treatment repeatedly over the course of six years, which led to several suicide attempts.
“I was not subjected to so-called therapy. Instead, I was subjected to repeated criminal abuse of a child,” Hendrix said. “No living creature should ever have to endure what I endured simply because of their sexual orientation.”
Two physicians and a nurse—Dr. Cynthia Brinson, Dr. Jacob Mays, and Jason Spees—also spoke in support of Israel’s bill, highlighting the dangers of conversion therapy and the dearth of scientific research supporting the practice.
Most major medical organizations denounce conversion therapy, which is banned for minors in 16 states. However, one opponent of Israel’s bill argued to the committee that a similar prohibition in Texas would violate the religious freedom of parents and practitioners.
“We raised our boys to be Christian, but now we would have no choice in that,” said Denise Seibert of Belton. “Now I would be a criminal for raising my children Christian.”
Jill Glover, a licensed counselor from Double Oak, said the bill would require her to affirm the “confusion” of transgender clients, eventually resulting in surgery to remove “perfectly good body parts.”
David Pickup, who operates the largest conversion-therapy practice in Texas, said many of his clients are boys who experience unwanted same-sex attraction as a result of abuse by older males. Pickup held up a spiral-bound notebook that he claimed contains “marvelous stories of emotional change.”
“Why doesn’t this bill reflect the voices of these little children?” he said.
Also testifying against the bill was Jeremy Schwab of Carrollton, who authored a plank endorsing conversion therapy that was added to the Texas Republican Party’s platform in 2014.
HB 517 was left pending in the committee and is unlikely to become law this year. Israel, one of five openly LGBTQ members of the Legislature, said that regardless of whether the bill advances any further, the hearing was a historic “starting point.”
“My colleagues are more enlightened about the practice, and we might have saved somebody’s life,” she told Texas Monthly. “There might be a parent who heard that video. A hearing can save a life, and what happens in Texas resonates around the country.”