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Minnesota Republicans kill plan to outlaw gay conversion therapy on kids

Evidence shows conversion therapy can have harmful -- and sometimes fatal -- effects on youth and vulnerable adults.

Evidence shows conversion therapy can have harmful -- and sometimes fatal -- effects on youth and vulnerable adults. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Last week, Minnesota state Sen. Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) was putting together an amendment on a highly personal issue: conversion therapy.

Dibble is an openly gay man, and he grew up in an evangelical background. He used to “pray” that one day he’d wake up straight. That’s the seductive claim behind conversion therapy – that queerness is something that can be fixed or removed.

There’s no evidence that conversion therapy can turn gay and trans people into something else. There is, however, plenty of evidence that it can lead to shame, depression, anxiety, and suicide – especially among younger patients. Today, it’s roundly dismissed by the medical, psychological, and psychiatric fields as an incredibly harmful pseudo-treatment.

Dibble’s amendment would outlaw practicing it on minors. A similar version has already passed in the Democrat-led House. But he was surprised by two Republican colleagues who not only offered support, but their own versions of the amendment. One was Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake), who didn’t respond to interview requests. The other was Scott Jensen (R-Chaska.)

Jensen, a family doctor in Watertown, says his feelings on Dibble’s amendment are complicated. His feelings on conversion therapy – “coercive, aversive” treatments, as he calls them – are not.

“It’s personally and professionally problematic for me,” he says.

Senators Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) and Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) agree that conversion therapy is a harmful practice.

Senators Scott Dibble (D-Minneapolis) and Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) agree that conversion therapy is a harmful practice. Minnesota Senate

Jensen seldom has trouble opposing the rest of his party on issues he cares about, and this is one of them. But he worries Dibble’s amendment may be too far-reaching. He wants to make sure the freedom and openness of talk therapy can be protected while outlawing attempts to sexually reorient Minnesota’s queer youth.

Dibble says Jensen and Pratt assured him that if they took this on, they could probably bring somewhere between four and 10 Republicans on board.

But in the heart of a debate on the amendment, Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) called for a recess and summoned his fellow Republicans to a meeting. "I knew this probably wasn’t good,” Dibble says.

According to Dibble, who says he got a recap from trusted sources, a half-dozen Republicans said if Dibble’s amendment passed, they’d vote against the gigantic health and human services budget bill it was attached to – some $15 billion's worth of legislation.

“It put the entire omnibus bill at risk,” Jensen says. Which he wasn’t willing to do for an amendment he saw as important, but imperfect.

In the end, Dibble’s amendment was shot down 34-30, with no Republicans voting in favor – not even Pratt or Jensen.

“I was surprised and a little disappointed, quite honestly,” Dibble says.

Jensen says the vote didn’t sit well with him. He left the Capitol feeling irritated with the system – and himself. The word he used in an interview with KSTP was “nauseated.” After the vote, he found Dibble and apologized that things had “fallen apart.” 

“[Pratt] did as well,” Dibble says. “They’re both very good men.”

Nonetheless, the experience was “painful” for him. His job is often to put personal feelings aside to maintain relationships with fellow politicians. After all, what he does isn’t supposed to be about him.

But this is about him. This amendment affects him and so many other people like him, and it hurts him every time to see his Republican colleagues cast vote after vote that will eventually inflict harm.

“It is hard to separate those things sometimes,” he says. “But I’m trying to.”

There is a sliver of hope. Dibble says he was surprised that several Republicans approached him to see if something more could be done this session. People, he says, have been very affected by this vote and the gut-wrenching debate that preceded it. 

“We’re not done with conversion therapy yet,” Jensen promises. This job, he says, is kind of like the time he spent in medical school. So much of it is “important and intriguing and challenging,” a force for healing and good. Then there are other parts that are “truly distasteful.”

The important thing is that you keep striving to be better… but never forget what you learned from those dark days.