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LGBTQ activists angered by Baja California governor's stance on conversion therapy

The memories remain raw for 27-year-old Benjamin Sanchez. As the teenage son of a pastor in an ultra-Christian community of Tijuana, his identity was considered a sin.

To absolve himself, Sanchez was forced to stand in front of a mirror and repeatedly yell: “I am not gay, I do not like men, being feminine is bad, being feminine goes against God’s plan for me.”

This was part of his so-called conversion therapy, which he said left him confused, traumatized and prone to panic attacks.

“I was raised with this idea that being gay was like being possessed,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “And, like any other possession, it can be exorcized, it can be cured.”

Conversion therapy, which is practiced throughout the world, aims to change a person’s sexual orientation. It has been completely debunked.

A 2007 task force convened by the American Psychological Association found no clear evidence that it works. California banned the practice for minors in 2012. Twenty other U.S. states have similar bans.

Yet it remains protected by law in Baja California.

In April, Baja California's state legislature voted 20-4 in favor of banning conversion therapy. The bill would have levied fines and even jail time on anyone who practices it, and on parents who send their children to providers.

Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila vetoed the bill. Instead of an outright ban, Avila opted to regulate conversion therapy providers. The governor’s revised bill allows parents to send their children to conversion therapy providers — as long as they aren’t forcing their children to do it.

'Harmful' policy

Today, Sanchez, who has embraced his gay identity, is among LGBTQ activists throughout Baja California who are pushing back against Avila’s regulations.

“I think it’s my responsibility, as someone who lived through this traumatic process and survived, that no one else go through this again,” he said.

COCUT, an LGBTQ rights organization in Tijuana, filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the regulations and reinstate the ban.

“These therapies are not valid, they do not work, they are harmful and generate trauma,” said Cesar Espinosa, the executive director of COCUT.

Studies show that people who undergo conversion therapy end up with higher rates of suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders and a wide range of mental health problems, said Ilan Meyer, of the UCLA Williams Institute.

“It is not a therapy that supports the person — it is a therapy that endorses the social condemnation of that person,” he said.

Meyer is incredulous that a government thinks it can regulate something that has been discredited by every national and international medical organization.

“I don’t understand how the governor of the state can regulate it better than the American Psychological Association,” he said.

LGBTQ rights organizations in Mexicali, Ensenada and Rosarito have also spoken out against the governor’s regulations. They say calling conversion therapy voluntary misunderstands how the practice works.

According to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute, most people exposed to conversion therapy were younger than 18 and received the therapy from a religious leader. These religious leaders are adept at convincing children that they want the therapy, Sanchez said.

“There is nothing voluntary about it,” he said. “They use a lot of manipulation techniques, they scare you, they make you insecure, they make you want to be cured.”

Under Avila’s regulations, people who force children into conversion therapy can face fines or jail. However, Sanchez said, when he was in conversion therapy he would have told investigators that he was there by choice. Because that’s what he believed at the time.

“I would have told them that I want to be here because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Because of this dynamic, Espinosa said, COCUT is particularly worried about the impact that these regulations will have on minors.

“Unfortunately, the youth are most vulnerable,” he said.