Mitchell Hortert was 13 when he confessed to his pastor his feelings of attraction toward other males.
“I had commented to this pastor that I was experiencing this, and he said we should meet and talk about it.”
They did, usually meeting one-on-one about once a month, sometimes at Hortert’s church in Butler County, where he’s from, and sometimes at neutral locations nearby — “Libraries, driving in the car, cafes, places like that.”
Hortert said the meetings started with questions, moved on to prayer and quickly segued into dire warnings.
“They would utilize biblical verses, and it was the standard ‘Pray the gay away’ kind of a tactic,” Hortert told The Incline by phone this week.
“There was a lot of using bible verses and scare tactics. […] It was hard when someone with such significance in your life tells you you’re going to hell.”
Hortert said he was left questioning his faith, God and himself. Two years after the sessions started, he ended them by falsely claiming he was no longer experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction.
He told the pastor what he wanted to hear — “I said, ‘OK, I’m converted” — and tried to move on with his life.
Hortert said he’s still trying.
Pittsburgh, Trump and a so-called therapy
What Hortert experienced is most commonly referred to as conversion therapy or reparative therapy. It’s a much-discredited practice aimed at changing — or “converting” — a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The practice is opposed by just about every major medical organization in the country and has been linked to an increase in suicides and a host of other negative outcomes for LGBTQ adults.
Pittsburgh’s City Council cited these reasons — and more — in passing a ban of conversion therapy for minors on this date in 2016. Mayor Bill Peduto signed the legislation a week later. The ban was a first of its kind in Pennsylvania and has since been followed by the adoption of similar or identical measures in cities like Philadelphia and Allentown.
At the time of its adoption, Pittsburgh’s ban was lauded by LGBTQ advocacy groups.
It was also lauded by opponents of the newly elected president and vice president, whose victory weeks earlier had left LGBTQ individuals and many others fearful for the future. In Democratic-leaning cities nationwide, that fear prompted a push to enact declarative and often symbolic legislative measures intended as local bulwarks to the sometimes amorphous agenda of the White House’s incoming occupants.
Pittsburgh was no different.
In introducing the legislation that would lead to the conversion therapy ban here, Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus, an openly gay man himself, pointed to the incoming presidential administration and then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s track record on LGBTQ issues in stressing the need for local action.
“I think it’s obvious, if anyone has followed the national news, there’s clearly been a change in administrations, and there’s a history that our vice president-elect has brought with him,” Kraus said in November 2016. “He supports this barbaric practice of conversion therapy and funding of conversion therapy.” (A spokesperson previously denied Pence’s support for conversion therapy in speaking with The New York Times. Meanwhile, Politifact rated a claim about then-Governor Pence’s support for using taxpayer dollars to fund the practice as “half true.”)
On Dec. 13, 2016, the Pittsburgh bill — which Kraus had cosponsored with Council Member Dan Gilman — unanimously passed.
One year later and it remains on the books, having yet to draw a legal challenge like the one filed last week against the City of Tampa over a conversion therapy ban adopted there last spring. Meanwhile, the exact impact of Pittsburgh’s ban remains unknown, in large part because it has yet to be enforced.
“At the time that this was conceived and passed it was intended as a deterrent to potential practitioners and as a supportive message to the LGBTQIA+ community in response to rhetoric coming out of the Trump transitional administration,” Neil Manganaro, chief of staff to Councilman Kraus, told The Incline in October.
Manganaro added, “We have no knowledge of any groups or organizations practicing conversion therapy on minors in the city, and we hope to keep it that way.”
He said he also has no knowledge of the city ever enforcing the ban. Spokespeople with the mayor’s office and Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety were also unaware of any enforcement measures taken thus far.
‘A rock and a hard place’
The absence of documented actions doesn’t mean the measure isn’t having an impact, officials argue. It’s just that the impact is largely intangible, a mix of silent deterrence and the slow molding of public perceptions.
“Given that my office received calls from organizations and individuals who spoke of heart-wrenching experiences in Pittsburgh, I do not believe that this legislation is [merely] symbolic,” Gilman said in an email to The Incline. “If it prevents future instances of child abuse, I believe it is serving an important purpose.”
Others question whether “symbolic” should even be considered a pejorative in this case, if the ends justify the means.
“I fully support the ban on conversion therapy that was passed by City Council last year,” District 4 Councilman-elect Anthony Coghill said in a statement, adding, “While this may have been a symbolic move against the incoming Trump administration, this is also an issue that affects the lives of people right here in Pittsburgh.”
The ban sets no specific fine for violators. Instead, there is a default $300 fine as established under city code.
There may, however, be a blindspot.
The ban applies only to licensed medical professionals, not unlicensed individuals or non-professionals like a pastor at a church. The reasons for that are likely numerous.
For starters, the legal pushback against conversion therapy bans often involves claims that such bans violate First Amendment rights by restricting speech and religious liberties. This is particularly true when considering bans that also apply to religious leaders, a distinction that can make those bans more likely to draw a legal challenge and harder to defend when they do.
Bruce Ledewitz, a professor with Duquesne University’s School of Law, said he believes Pittsburgh officials likely see their ban as a regulation on businesses, not religious institutions.
But even that distinction is potentially problematic.
“My theory about this is that the city’s theory is probably that they’re regulating a business, but of course cities in Pennsylvania are not permitted to regulate businesses,” Ledewitz said, adding that he has no direct knowledge of council’s thought process on this particular piece of legislation.
He added: “The city maybe would have been better off banning the therapy in general, because then you’re regulating a behavior and not a business. But a blanket ban like that would also raise First Amendment issues. They may be between a rock and a hard place.”
Leslie Stephens with Pittsburgh’s Department of Law said she knew of no legal challenge to Pittsburgh’s conversion therapy ban.
But there have been elsewhere.
In Illinois last year, a group of pastors sued the state over its conversion therapy ban in hopes of excluding clergy from the restriction. Their suit was later tossed by a federal judge, but not without an order first declaring pastors exempt from the law. Nearly identical challenges have been made in New Jersey, Tampa and California, just to name a few.
More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in May rejected a challenge to conversion therapy bans, finding such bans did not amount to a violation of religious rights.
But opponents remain undaunted and cities often careful with how they proceed.
That’s not to say those cities aren’t trying. In fact, conversion therapy bans continue to proliferate in states and municipalities across the U.S.
And for survivors like Hortert, that’s the good news.
“I think bans like Pittsburgh’s, whether at the local or state level, I think they’re really important to have because they provide protections for children and adults, but more for children, to not experience some of the negative effects from this, for lack of a better word, therapy.”
He added of his own experience: “You go in thinking God is love and you leave thinking ‘What was that?’ I doubted my faith and the existence of a higher being. […] It was very subtle at first, talking about sexual morality and then it went into ‘This is what the bible says,’ ‘You need to pray harder’ and do all of these things to change something I cannot change and to control something I cannot control. […] It wasn’t labeled reparative therapy or conversion therapy, but as an adult you realize what it was. At the time I just thought ‘This is what needed to happen.’”
The rural-urban divide
Hortert now lives in Moon Township. He’s also president of the Pittsburgh chapter of PFLAG, an LGBTQ support and advocacy group here.
In the 15 years since he was referred for conversion therapy by his father, the two have almost never spoken on the subject. Hortert officially came out to his father years later. He said he was terrified and that the results were predictably disastrous. His mother was more supportive.
“I was really angry for a while about [the conversion therapy experience], but I felt I had to channel that anger into something for the greater good.”
Hortert said he helped cofound the Butler LGBTQ Interfaith Network, which he calls a “collection of pastors and laypersons who help LGBTQ youth and individuals in their spiritual journeys.”
Brian Graff, a member of the network and a commissioned pastor at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Butler, said he met Hortert in 2009.
“It was probably within a year that I started hearing about his struggles [with conversion therapy],” Graff told The Incline.
He added of kids in a similar position: “We occasionally get a person out of the blue that seeks our group out and says ‘Well, this is how I’m feeling about myself and everything I’ve been taught is against that,’ and we work with them to say, ‘You’re being taught the wrong things. You’re all God’s children.’” Graff is himself a gay man and belongs to the Presbyterian Church USA, the more socially liberal half of an ideological split that continues within Presbyterianism today.
As for conversion therapy, it should be noted that not all denominations are of the same mind anymore, even internally.
After his own conversion therapy experience, Hortert said he left the church altogether. He later returned, albeit with a new denomination. (He was a Presbyterian and is now a Methodist.)
And while he praises Pittsburgh’s efforts to deter the practice, he remains concerned about a very real divide that exists between the services and protections afforded LGBTQ youth in cities like this one and those afforded LGBTQ youth in the rural areas surrounding those cities.
“These rural county LGBTQ people are really kind of alone out there,” he said.
Advocates say this gap could be bridged to some extent by new statewide initiatives and legislative achievements, including the adoption of a statewide conversion therapy ban that has so far remained elusive in Pennsylvania.
But for all those doubting the likelihood of that happening anytime soon with the state’s government so thoroughly dominated by conservatives, Hortert is more optimistic.
“We were the first city to do this,” he said of Pittsburgh. “Little western Pennsylvania, which most people don’t necessarily think of as a place doing groundbreaking work for LGBTQ people. But we’re really ahead of the game here. I am very hopeful that more conversion therapy bans will be adopted. We are seeing other cities and states discussing these types of laws. My hope is that we enact a national law someday.”