In June 2016, Miami Beach banned conversion therapy for minors.
Now, over half of the approximately two dozen U.S. municipalities that have banned the discredited therapy are located in a single state: Florida.
And, as the Sun-Sentinel reported earlier this week, Broward County—which contains Fort Lauderdale, and has a population of nearly 2 million—is aiming to add to that number with a ban of their own.
The practice of trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity is on its way to becoming extinct in the Sunshine State.
As frequent Florida vacationer Donald Trump might say, “There’s something going on.”
More specifically, a well-organized network of LGBT Floridians have rapidly passed 17 local conversion therapy bans in as many months—a feat that no other state besides Ohio has even come close to replicating.
“Local leaders have really taken it upon themselves to lead where the state legislature has failed,” Hannah Willard, senior policy director for Equality Florida told The Daily Beast, adding, proudly, “Not only do we have the most local conversion therapy bans passed, we also have the most local human rights ordinances passed out of any state in the country without state-level protections.”
In a media economy that often positions Florida as the butt of bad jokes—Willard, laughing, tells The Daily Beast that “we are a very unique state in many ways” and that “we know all of the memes”—this grassroots achievement has largely gone overlooked.
Florida, like 41 other states, does not have a statewide ban on conversion therapy for minors—even though virtually every major medical association has condemned the practice as dangerous, unethical, and premised on the false assumption that LGBT identity can be changed. (The American Psychiatric Association, for example, warns that the risks of conversion therapy are “great, including depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.”)
Nor does Florida have statewide protections for LGBT people in employment, housing, and public accommodations. With a Republican-dominated legislature in Tallahassee and Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the governor’s mansion, Florida is not exactly fertile ground for such efforts.
Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich is familiar with these limitations. A former state legislator who spent a total of 12 years serving in the state Senate and the House of Representatives, Rich proposed Broward County’s conversion therapy ban after joining the commission in 2016.
“We have not had any success at the state legislature,” Rich told The Daily Beast, noting that a statewide conversion therapy ban has now failed two years in a row.
Rich says that, after assuming her current role, she “saw the large number of cities [that had banned conversion therapy] and was wondering why there were no counties.”
Perhaps it couldn’t be done at the county level, she thought. After some research, she realized that there was nothing stopping her from calling for a Broward ban—and soon the vast majority of her fellow commissioners were co-sponsors on the effort.
“Obviously, we’re not going to have a problem passing this through the commission,” Rich told The Daily Beast, noting that it includes exemptions for religious organizations, while leaving open the option for individual municipalities to “opt out” of the ban.
If this process seems streamlined, that’s because it is. In the neighboring county to the north, the 30-year-old Palm Beach County Human Rights Council—led by Rand Hoch, the first openly gay judge in Florida—has rapidly passed ban after ban, working from the same template. West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Riviera Beach, Delray Beach, Wellington, Greenacres, and Boca Raton now all have bans of their own.
But it wasn’t until recently that Judge Hoch and the PBCHRC focused on this issue.
“We really haven’t had conversion therapy as a big priority, simply because we didn’t think there was a way that we could address it outside of the state legislature,” he told The Daily Beast.
But after fielding phone calls from parents of gay kids whose friends were being subjected to the fraudulent practice, the PBCHRC sent letters to the mayors of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County alerting them to its dangers.
“Literally within an hour, I had heard from both mayors, both saying that they wanted to be the ones to bring this forward,” Hoch recalled.
Instead of skipping directly to the county level, however, the PBCHRC worked on the “top 12 municipalities by population,” as Hoch told The Daily Beast, in order to “flesh out the opposition.”
The PBCHRC was worried about potential pushback from anti-LGBT groups—and they were right. (Last month, for example, Miami-Dade County rejected a ban on conversion therapy after outcry from religious groups, although the cities of Miami and Miami Beach both already have bans in place.)
By going from municipality to municipality—bringing along West Palm Beach psychologist Dr. Rachel Needle to provide a medical perspective—the PBCHRC was able to systematically exhaust the anti-LGBT justifications for conversion therapy. West Palm Beach’s ban went into effect last November; Boca Raton’s, after a long winning streak, was enacted just last month.
“Once we got to the comfort level where no one was bringing up any opposition anymore—they ran out of arguments—then we approached the county commission, and said, ‘OK, we’re ready to move forward on this,’” Hoch recalled.
The culmination of the PBCHRC’s efforts could arrive as soon as next month, when Palm Beach County will likely become the first county in the state to ban conversion therapy—although the Liberty Counsel, which is listed as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has already threatened legal action if the ban passes, as the Sun-Sentinel first reported.
For Hoch, this is not a hypothetical fight. By the PBCHRC’s tally, religious organizations aside, there are five remaining practitioners of conversion therapy in the county.
“We have two kids now that we’re aware of that are being subjected to this in our county,” he told The Daily Beast, “and they are crying out for help through their friends and through their friends’ parents.”
Indeed, as Willard told The Daily Beast, LGBT advocates in Florida have made it clear that conversion therapy isn’t “just this thing of the past that some quack, somewhere, is still practicing,” but a very real threat to LGBT youth.
In 2017, as ABC News reported, conversion therapy proponents were celebrating the election of Donald Trump under a GOP platform that protected the “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children”—a line interpreted by LGBT advocates as a dog whistle for anti-LGBT groups.
The fact that the practice remains legal in the vast majority of U.S. states, as ABC News noted, can partially be attributed to the legal efforts of those groups.
That makes Florida all the more fascinating as a case study in grassroots LGBT activism. In a state that broke narrowly for Trump, a full 60 percent of the population—by Equality Florida’s estimate—is now covered by local LGBT non-discrimination ordinances. The recent flurry of conversion therapy bans, in many ways, simply builds on that foundation.
This success hasn’t been limited to Palm Beach County, either. The South Florida LGBT group SAVE was influential in passing the first ban in Miami Beach—along with subsequent bans in Wilton Manors, the city of Miami, and other municipalities in the area. Tony Lima, the executive director of the SAVE, told The Daily Beast that "impetus" for getting the first ban in Florida passed was the "failed effort" of Democratic state representative David Richardson to pass a statewide ban in 2015.
"[Richardson] then came to us at SAVE and asked us to take on the challenge of passing municipal bans in order to send a strong message to the state that this was a practice aimed at our youth that absolutely needed to end," Lima said.
Key West, the southernmost city in Florida, passed a ban in March and Tampa followed suit in April.
And the PBCHRC’s success in Palm Beach County has become something of a lightning rod for LGBT advocates working in other parts of the state. By drawing media attention to the issue—in October, for example, the Sun-Sentinel covered the trend of South Florida cities “one by one” banning the practice—Hoch says that his organization has been contacted by LGBT advocates in Tampa and, most recently, in Gainesville.
As the Gainesville Sun reported last week—the city commission is currently weighing a ban, with discussion scheduled for December. Interest, it seems, is spreading north.
“We’re sharing this,” Hoch told The Daily Beast. “We know there’s no hope that the Florida legislature will pass this—and it’s doubtful that, even if they did, the governor would sign it into law—so a lot of the political work we have to do here in Florida for our community has to be done on the local level.”
National LGBT groups, who are working to ban conversion therapy at the state and federal level, have noticed Florida’s ground game in the fight against the practice.
Xavier Persad, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign told The Daily Beast that “particularly in Florida, municipal leaders are growing impatient with inaction on the state level.”
From a national perspective, Persad says, that is part of a trend of “cities leading the way on equality generally.” (According to the Movement Advancement Project, five Ohio municipalities and three Pennsylvania municipalities have passed conversion therapy bans, among a handful of others.)
Persad is not giving up hope on more wide-ranging legislation, noting that four Republican governors—in Illinois, New Jersey, Nevada, and New Mexico—have signed statewide bans on conversion therapy for minors.
“Protecting our youth from abuse should not be a partisan issue—and it truly isn’t,” he told The Daily Beast.
Nor is Equality Florida going to stop pushing for a statewide ban to protect all LGBT youth in the state. As Willard told The Daily Beast, that remains their “ultimate goal.”
But if the local bans keep coming at this rate, much of the state could be covered before Tallahassee does anything. And there’s nothing stopping LGBT advocates in other red states from essentially copying Floridians’ homework.
Willard told The Daily Beast that the conversion therapy bans are “a potential model that can be exported to other states.”
“All it takes is a couple people to get the ball rolling,” Hoch told The Daily Beast. “And then once someone starts doing this, then it’s not that difficult for other motivated people to start doing it.”
Update 11/17/17 1:30 PM: This piece was updated to include comment from Tony Lima, executive director of SAVE.