The Virginia Board of Psychology voted unanimously today to begin a process of regulating conversion therapy for minors.
The passage marks the latest sign that Virginia’s professional regulatory boards may act where lawmakers have been unwilling. Bills seeking an outright conversion therapy ban failed in party-line votes over the past several years, with Republicans shooting down the bill.
Some of those lawmakers said the issue was best regulated by those boards rather than legislators, prompting the Department of Health Professions to forward the issue to the Boards of Psychology, Medicine, and Nursing for review.
The Board of Psychology is the first to act on that suggestion by drafting a guidance document on conversion therapy. The move kicks off a process that could take anywhere from a few months to two years, depending on the mechanisms the board uses.
Board members were eager to push through both the guidance paper, which advises staff on how to interpret existing legal code, as well initiate what could be a two year process to update the regulatory code itself. Unlike a guidance paper, a regulatory change would carry the force of law.
Board president Herbert Stewart said he anticipated pushback.
“I just want to emphasize we are not rushing the process,” he said. “We have been talking about this for years.”
The move comes as two lawmakers filed bills directing the health regulatory boards to regulate conversion therapy. A bill from Sen. Steve Newman (R-Forest) gives more narrow direction to the board, calling out physical forms of therapy like electroshock treatment. A separate bill from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) gives broader leeway.
Both senators voted against a bill last year intended to ban the practice entirely.
Critics say conversion therapy can traumatize children and alienate them from loved ones.
“Conversion therapy has no basis in science,” said Casey Pick, a senior advocacy fellow at a national crisis support organization called The Trevor Project. “There is no evidence supporting it. And the message that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is something that can or should be changed is deeply harmful.”
Shawn Maguire, grassroots director of the Family Foundation, said that the board’s definition of conversion therapy was too broad.
“This one’s a blanket ban on anything that touches the subject,” he said. “Because as soon as the patient interprets [therapy] as an effort to change sexual orientation or gender identity, it is.”