The former governor of Puerto Rico, the Hon. Ricardo Rosselló, in 2019 signed Executive Order EO-2019-16 that “partially” banned conversion therapy for minors on the island after the House of Representatives decided not to vote on Senate Bill 1000, which would have made these therapies illegal. The executive order requires all medical institutions applying for a license from the Health Department to guarantee that they will not offer conversion therapy. However, this is not enough to address the problem since the order is limited to the executive’s powers. Also, any future governor can repeal it, so it cannot be relied on to guarantee the protection that minors deserve. Although the EO does represent a positive advance to prohibit conversion therapies, it is vitally important to enact it into law to address them and expressly prohibit them. This legislation should be extended to the religious sector and mental health professionals to protect minors.
Different senators recently introduced Senate Bill 184 to expand protections for minors’ physical and mental health and prohibit the practice of conversion therapy against LGBTIQ+ people. The bill defines conversion therapy as a “practice or treatment provided by an entity or professional who is licensed or certified to provide mental health services that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity in an individual.” The definition includes any effort or treatment to change a person’s bodily behavior, expressions, or sexual orientation and eliminate or reduce romantic or sexual attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender. The bill identifies conversion therapy as a form of child abuse, including “institutional abuse,” as established in the Child Safety, Well-being and Protection Act of Puerto Rico. However, legislators keep debating the bill’s approval under the assumption these therapies do not happen on the island anymore.
Over the decades, conversion therapies used to “cure” homosexuality included hypnosis, lobotomies, inducing nausea, vomiting, paralysis, electric shock, chemical castration, among other things. In Puerto Rico, conversion therapies exist, and they are far from being what they once were in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Conversion therapies that are practiced today in Puerto Rico, the United States and around the world occur with the consent and the enforcement of the religious sector and health professionals with faith-based beliefs. We focus on our minors’ physical abuse, forgetting the emotional and psychological abuse that continues to occur in each corner of Puerto Rico, in doctor’s offices and churches. To forget this fact on purpose and use it to defend the non-existence of reparative therapies in Puerto Rico by our majority legislators (members of the Popular Democratic Party) is irresponsible and ignorant. It threatens the best welfare of our minors and their responsibility as state entities to ensure it.
In 2018, Senate Bill 1000 favored eliminating conversion therapies on the island. It would have allowed the survivors of these therapies to relate their experiences and traumatic processes to psychological clinics and churches. Several victims of these therapies told their stories during public hearings. Some of their stories are the following:
Survivor Caleb Esteban said that he received therapy at a counseling center when he was between 14- and 15-years-old. He later learned that the counselor had no education to give mental health treatment, but she was there because she was a church leader. He said that the therapy consisted of performing exorcism-type prayers to get rid of the “demons.”
Another survivor, Sofia Padrón, said she “was taken at 16 by my mother to a psychologist because I was attracted to women. The psychologist said that he treated me as a pastor, not as a psychologist, that same-sex attraction was a temporary phase and that I was confused. He told me that I couldn’t be happy and that my attraction to women was not normal …”
Alvín A. Rivera was 14 – and 15-years-old in 2014 and 2015 when he was taken by his mother to the church because he felt attracted to men. There, the pastor, who was also a psychologist, performed exorcisms to combat his homosexuality and charged his mother for these services. After several occasions, the pastor told Alvin and his mother that he “was cured” that he “had managed to free him from his demon.”
Alejandro Santiago between 2008-2013 attended his church. There, the pastor recommended fasting and long hours of praying to cure him of homosexuality and “not behaving as a man should behave.” The fasts began at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight. Sometimes they summoned the congregation of the church for a prayer circle to cure Alejandro of his homosexuality. Sometimes Alejandro stood in front of hundreds of people to claim the homosexuality demon had been released from his body. Alejandro suffered from depression and anxiety for many years after this. Today, he is a human rights activist.
The stories mentioned above are just a few of the many others happening in Puerto Rico every day. However, legislators persist in the narrative that conversion therapies do not exist in Puerto Rico. The new position of the legislators confirms again that the stigma and prejudices towards homosexuality continue. Unfortunately, this only creates more bigotry and more significant harm to the most vulnerable.
About 28 percent of LGBTQ youth who have undergone the above conversion therapies have attempted suicide, compared to 12 percent of LGBTQ youth who had not undergone conversion therapy, according to the Williams Institute. Suicide rates among LGBTQ youth who have undergone conversion therapies, such as the ones mentioned above, are extremely high, and these practices in Puerto Rico are a clear example of how the state fails to fulfill its duty to ensure the best welfare of our minors.
The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has upheld the state’s duty to protect minors on countless occasions. The constitutional right to religious freedom or parents’ power over their children is not absolute, and it yields to the state’s responsibility to ensure that our minors do not suffer from emotional abuse, such as those currently caused by reparative therapies on the island. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that these minors are protected, or we will continue to be responsible for the increase in numbers of depression and suicide in Puerto Rico. On three different occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisions that allowed New Jersey’s anti-conversion therapy law to remain in effect. The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear challenges to California’s anti-conversion therapy law in May 2017 and in June 2014 it left in place decisions from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the law’s constitutionality.
There is extensive scientific evidence on the harm that conversion therapies do to minors, including those that not physically invasive. Conversion therapies constitute mistreatment of our children, and this must be established through legislation in Puerto Rico. Health professionals and members of the religious sector charge for these exorcism services, therapies, and spiritual sessions. Parents and minors themselves believe that they will have “a normal” life upon completion of these therapies. These practices promote depression, anxiety, and invalidation in our youth. They are not practices of love or an affirmation of the love of God, and they result in increased suicide rates and low self-esteem in our society. Our minors’ lives and their emotional state are again in Puerto Rico’s legislators’ hands. Hopefully, this time they will listen and vote to prohibit these tortures on the island.