‘Conversion therapies’ ban is hotly debated in Senate hearing

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Amid testimonies and intense debates, the Puerto Rico Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee on Wednesday conducted the first public hearing to address Senate Bill 184, which seeks to amend Act 408 and Act 246 to prohibit “conversion therapies” from being practiced on anyone under 21 on the island.

During a long session held at the Leopoldo Figueroa Carreras Audience Hall at the Capitol in Puerta de Tierra, deponents for and against the legislation faced committee chairman Sen. José Vargas Vidot and other lawmakers to present their arguments.

As for deponents who were in favor, LGBTQ+ rights activist and social worker Alejandro Santiago Calderón, who sat next to Lydael Vega Otero, first vice president of the Puerto Rico Professional Social Workers Association, spoke to the committee as a conversion therapy survivor.

“In my case, I was [under conversion therapy] from 2008 until 2013, exactly when I began [studying at] the university,” Santiago Calderón said. “Some of the recommendations were for fasting and long hours of prayer, intermittent fasting for long hours; six, seven, 14 hours.”

“That would include summoning the rest of the church to fast with you, chain prayers, revictimization, and others,” he added. “I was submitted to exorcism, I was called by my name, I was pointed at and I was told ‘the demon of homosexuality’ was over me.”

During his exposition, Santiago Calderón said that while some might believe people would participate in such processes voluntarily, he pointed out that “this voluntariness does not exist due to social influences on existing expectations about gender.”

The social worker spoke of what it was like for him “to live in a society that establishes that being homosexual is a problem and then you attend places to work on spirituality and demonstrate that ‘being homosexual is a sin and to achieve salvation you have to get rid of the demon of homosexuality.’”

Furthermore, he said the so-called conversion therapies, or any of their modalities, can be applied according to the particular interpretation of the churches and their respective leaders.

“That simple commentary coming from the religious leader, within a violent and heteronormative perspective, is enough for parents to feel the pressure in saying “I don’t want my son to be f******,” Santiago Calderón said. “Worse yet, [they could end up saying] I don’t want a f****** son, for that matter, I prefer him being a drug user or dead.”

Likewise, Dr. José Francheschini, director of the Psychiatry Department at Universidad Central del Caribe, said he was attending the hearing independently and supported the bill authored by Sens. Vargas Vidot, Ana Irma Rivera Lassen, Rafael Bernabe Riefkohl and María de Lourdes Santiago. He said “any therapy that causes more harm than good cannot be accepted.”

When Rivera Lassen asked the psychiatrist what type of help parents had available in support of their non-heterosexual offspring, Franceschini said that, for him, parents must be the ones to receive professional help to understand their offspring’s sexual orientation because, he said, most of the concerns are based on prejudice.

“I don’t understand how religious people seem to discriminate against others. They are the ones who need to learn to accept their child’s sexual orientation, improve their interpersonal relationship and love,” Francheschini said. “Homosexuality is not an illness.”

Vega Otero said the social workers association supports the bill but raised concerns that the legislation “does not mention explicitly the therapies or interventions that are offered in churches and their institutions and can be conducted by members of the clergy, religious leaders or spiritual advisors.”

Dignity Project Sen. Joanne Rodríguez Veve, meanwhile, said she has been concerned about senators supporting the bill, which she said seeks to forbid conversion therapies from being practiced on adults.

She went on to say that the procedure’s definition in the bill was “ambiguous.”

“I don’t know how the promoters [of the legislation] can be smiling and telling the country that the bill does not prohibit everyone,” Rodríguez Veve said, expressing disdain at the definition’s use of the word “individual” throughout the public hearing.

However, Santiago read the definition stated in the legislation and said one should not “induce false testimonies” because the bill was established to amend laws that protect children’s mental health.

Rodríguez Veve and Vargas Vidot clashed after she asked for a clarification turn when the definition of the procedure continued to spur controversy.

When Rodríguez Veve asked for her turn, Vargas Vidot asked her to use the time to clarify her statements and not to use it as an additional turn.

As she tried to explain her clarification, the Dignity Project senator questioned Franceschini again, at which point Vargas Vidot stated that she was out of order.

“I am the chairman of this committee,” he said.

Meanwhile, Southern Baptist Ordained Minister René Pereira said he was against the legislation because he deems it to be “ambiguous.”

He said “there is no evidence or statistics” that could prove such procedures exist on the island and that the measure goes against the separation of church and state.

He also said SB 184 was similar to SB 1000, which was authored by former New Progressive Party Sen. Zoé Laboy, to the point of being a “rehash,” and was “commissioned by radical LGBTQ activists, aimed at persecuting and penalizing those who do not think like them.”

The minister went on to mix the conversion therapy issue with the gender perspective issue in the education system, which the bill does not address.

“Those who support the so-called ‘gender ideology’ have confirmed that the biological sex of an individual does not necessarily correspond to their ‘gender identity’ or how the person perceives it. They affirm gender is not static but it is changing and fluid,” he said. “At the same time, we see that those who hold such a belief do not have any problem in providing all kinds of help to a person or gender identity they desire.”

Moreover, Pereira said, “when a person who wishes to ‘move’ with the heterosexual orientation for the same reasons, as they do not feel comfortable or identify with other sexual orientations, then right there it ends and any help, affirmation or advice toward that person has to stop.”

When Rivera Lassen asked Pereira where he got the concept of “gender ideology,” he was unable to refer to any bibliographical source as he said he got the information “from various sources I have read.”

The minister added that the bill also represents a “Marxist conception of the family.”

When Riefkohl asked where he obtained such information, Pereira could not be specific as to the source. He said he has “read many others.”

Vargas Vidot asked Pereira to provide sources that cover the issue in three days “as we need to have the most complete information in order to address the bill.”

At press time, conservative group Alerta Puerto Rico was presenting its arguments against the legislation, and Proyecto Matria Executive Director Amarilis Pagán was stating the organization’s position in support of SB 184.

Laboy and former Senate President Eduardo Bhatia had yet to participate in the hearing.