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Jackson County is the first county in Missouri to ban conversion therapy. Why did it take so long?

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3

After three months of maneuvering, three failed votes and four different versions of the same legislation, the Jackson County Legislature last Monday voted unanimously to become the first county government in Missouri to ban anti-LGBT conversion therapy.

The ordinance, effective immediately, prohibits any practice or treatment that seeks to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It specifically exempts “counseling that provides support and assistance to a person undergoing gender transition.”

Although the final vote was unanimous, the conversion therapy ban has been a source of conflict among local government officials, including the legislators themselves, as well as Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. and Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission.

From failed amendments and surprise abstentions during votes to a heated county legislature meeting, the road to the new ban has been tumultuous.

So why was it so difficult for the county legislature to pass the ban, and what were the roadblocks that stood in its way?

'They need to look in the mirror'

Kansas City’s LGBTQ Commission first called on the Jackson County Legislature to ban conversion therapy nearly three months ago, on Jan. 9. An ordinance was introduced later that month by Jalen Anderson, Manny Abarca, Sean Smith and Jeanie Lauer.

After not seeing any progress on the ordinance, the commission published another letter in February demanding action.

The reason for the delay, Abarca said, was because legislators wanted to strengthen the enforcement mechanism in the ordinance. People convicted of violating the ordinance are now subject to a $500 fine and the county will not contract with any agency that employs someone who has been convicted of this crime.

The ordinance’s sponsors met with the LGBTQ Commission, state legislators and county officials to figure out how best to ban conversion therapy with meaningful enforcement without sparking retaliation from the Missouri legislature.

After a public hearing on March 16, Ordinance 5711 arrived on the floor of the county legislature on March 20. At the meeting, Anderson shared his own traumatic experience with conversion therapy as a child.

But to the shock of community activists and the legislators themselves, the ordinance failed by one vote. “Disgraceful,” Anderson said at the meeting. “This entire body, disgraceful.”

Smith, who had attempted to amend the ordinance three times, voted no. DaRon McGee, the legislature’s chairman, abstained, along with Venessa Huskey and Donna Peyton.

“My reasoning was merely because I felt it was necessary to have some kind of notification attached to the ban,” Peyton said.

McGee and Huskey have not shared the reasons for their abstention votes.

Justice Horn, chair of the Kansas City LGBTQ Commission, said that some of the legislators who voted no or abstained voiced concerns about whether it could negatively affect their constituents.

The legislators “called me and said, ‘I have people who are worried this is going to impact them,’” Horn said. “And I finally said, ‘If they think this is going to impact them, they need to look in the mirror. They’re not the victims. If they’re going to be put out, I don’t care.’”

Two more ordinances, both doomed to fail

After the legislature failed to pass the ban, County Executive White promised to light the county courthouse in rainbow colors until the legislature took action.

“I am disappointed that the Jackson County Legislature failed to send a clear message today that LGBTQ+ youth should be valued, respected and treated with the same dignity that every human being deserves,” White wrote in a statement that evening.

Abarca said the ordinance likely failed because there was not enough discussion among legislators to garner support before the March 20 meeting.

“It was introduced very raw, without the discussions being done that needed to be had, and then passion filled in the void and egos got into the mix,” Abarca said. “The building got lit up by the county executive, who hadn’t played any real part in this throughout the entire process. So it became kind of contentious.”

The following week, three new versions of the conversion therapy ban were introduced at the March 27 meeting, including a motion to reconsider the ordinance that had already been rejected.

This included Ordinance 5726 and Ordinance 5728, sponsored by Abarca, which included a provision requiring the county to notify conversion therapy providers of the ban, as well as an effective date 90 days after the ordinance’s passage.

Ordinance 5726 was sent to committee, while legislators debated whether the notification requirement in Ordinance 5728 would prevent the county from effectively enforcing the ban. Abarca said during the meeting that he was not responsible for adding the 90-day effective date and asked who added it to the legislation — but none of the other legislators took responsibility.

The legislature “was trying to wash copies and strip out certain components, and it ended up being something that none of us liked,” Abarca said.

Both ordinances were voted down. And despite unanimous support for banning conversion therapy, every legislator voted “no” or abstained on at least one version of the ordinance.

At the following meeting on April 3, the legislature withdrew the compromise ordinances from the previous week and voted unanimously to pass the conversion therapy ban. The version that ultimately passed, Ordinance 5731, was nearly identical to the first version that had been introduced — and rejected — two weeks earlier.

The legislature also passed a resolution to allocate $4,000 for the purpose of publishing a notice that the conversion therapy ban had been adopted.

Next steps

Abarca said the sponsors had to be very aware throughout the process of drafting the ordinance that the county’s priorities are dramatically different from measures under consideration in Jefferson City.

Bills filed in the Missouri legislature would forcibly halt the transition of transgender youth or criminalize loosely defined “drag performances” outside of age-restricted venues. Other states have proposed removing trans children from affirming families.

The Republican-dominated state legislature can use measures such as preemption laws to upend local laws and ordinances that its members don’t like. But Abarca said he and other county legislators don’t plan to back down when faced with state legislation targeting queer and trans people.

“This isn’t the only issue we’re going to start picking fights on,” Abarca said. “There’s more to come, without a doubt.”

Abarca said he and other progressive county legislators were looking forward to the adjournment of the Missouri legislative session in May.

“May is really close. If we get through that, we can do a lot more here,” Abarca said. “And I think there are several of us, Mr. Anderson being one of them, who are pondering what more progressive things we can do now, and at least enact those laws for six months before the legislature starts again.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Josh Merchant