Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, gives a speech during the House of Representatives vote on the state budget at the Maine State House in Augusta in June 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

House debate on a bill to ban “conversion therapy” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers reached a level of intensity Thursday that hasn’t been seen at the State House in recent memory.

LD 912 seeks to ban conversion therapy for certain clinical professions and establish penalties for those who do so. The first chamber debate on the bill Thursday quickly devolved into tense testimony and lawmakers shouting over each other.

Floor speeches on the issue were unusually passionate, with supporters recounting personal and professional experiences while opponents decried the bill as unnecessary, as well as a violation of family and free speech rights.

At one point Rep. Roger Reed, R-Carmel, read an email from a constituent suggesting that being gay is “unnatural.”

“This is an attempt on behalf of the LGBT community to legitimize the unnatural inclinations acceptable to society today over the natural inclination as presented in the Bible,” he read.

Proponents of the bill shouted him down, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, took Reed into her office and abruptly put the House into recess “until we can all cool down.” It was one of several times Gideon stopped debate to remind members not to impugn each other.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who sponsored the bill, told a story about how an administrator from his college once told him “one day, I hope you’ll see beyond your gay identity and take in what life has to offer you” and recommended he read a book called “Beyond Gay.” Fecteau said the exchange, along with other factors, caused him to contemplate suicide.

“I know there are young people who are far more vulnerable than I was back then,” Fecteau said. “I want to protect them from the harm that would come from a trusted professional telling them, one way or another, that they are broken and, that the core truth of who they are is wrong and even disgusting.”

Opponents argued that the bill would ban families from doing what they want.

“This legislation would take away rights from parents who should be decision makers in terms of their children,” Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, said. “Parents have a constitutional right to make decisions about raising their children.”

Throughout the debate, Gideon stopped frequently to remind House members not to impugn the motives or characters of others. Later Thursday, she reiterated House rules for floor decorum.

After a cooling-off period that lasted more than 10 minutes, Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, recounted how he grew up as an evangelical Christian and had received counseling from parents, clergy and others. But he said it did not change the person he knows himself to be, which is why he supports the bill to ban conversion therapy.

The bill ended up passing 76-68, but more votes are coming in both chambers and, with them, likely more contentious debates.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.