Councilor Ruth Ludwig remembered the worry that bubbled up when she learned her college-age daughter was gay. As a Catholic, she wondered what her parents and siblings, friends and co-workers would think of her for having a gay daughter. She fretted about how society would treat her child.
Twenty years later, Ludwig said her daughter has a loving wife, two stepchildren and six stepgrandchildren, and love has proven thicker than societal and religious prejudices against the LGTBQ community for her family.
And Tuesday, Aug. 20, the Superior City Council stood unanimously with Ludwig to ensure that a form of therapy intended to make lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning youth straight is banned in Superior.
The Council adopted a ban on conversion therapy, which resorted to extreme measures such as institutionalization, castration and electroconvulsive shock therapy to try to stop people from being gay or transsexual.
According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, counselors today use aversion conditioning and a variety of behavioral, cognitive and psychoanalytic practices for that purpose.
Ludwig said her goal is to protect youth who may be subjected to the treatments, and parents, who may not realize “unscrupulous” therapists are taking their money for therapy that doesn’t work.
Justin Hager, an attorney and former Superior youth city councilor who help found the Gay-Straight Alliance at Superior High School 15 years ago, said councilors may have the impression that conversion therapy isn’t a problem in Superior.
“I can tell you that it is … I can tell you that a person in that high school, someone in a professional position whose job it was to protect me, advocated for me to go to conversion therapy and told me that I would be better off dead than to be gay, Hager said. “I can tell you … an adult person on this Council — who’s no longer here, I’ll give you all the clear — said, ‘I just really hope that you can be cured because I’m going to have to pray that you die.’”
As a youth, he said his family was ushered out of their church in front of the congregation because he’s gay.
“At the age of 14 (a friend) was strapped to a gurney, had ice water poured over his body and then was hooked up to electrodes while he was forced to look at images of men holding hands in the hope that he would associate same-sex attraction with torture and pain,” Hager said of a boy he called Sam. “Please don’t sit on your hands and let that happen here.”
Hager was one of more than 20 people, including pastors of local churches and educators who spoke in favor of banning conversion therapy in Superior.
Pastor Will Mowchan of Pilgrim Lutheran Church attributed the Christian aberration of alternative gender lifestyles to six verses in the Bible.
“Well, for anyone who quotes those six verses, I have a few other verses,” Mowchan said. “These verses suggest that working on Sunday, wearing blended fabrics, eating shellfish and a sassy high school kid all are punishable by death. Do you really want to go there? If you won’t go there, don’t insist on the six out-of-context verses there.”
Victor St. George, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, said there are far more verses about gluttony among the 31,102 verses in the Bible.
“No one has threatened to kidnap me and force me into a therapeutic setting to shame me into eating better and exercising more,” St. George said, after sharing the story about his gay brother’s suicide attempt because they had grown up in a fundamentalist congregation where homosexuality is considered unworthy of God’s love.
“I am happy to report that he is alive, at peace with himself and living in New York with his husband, Mark,” St. George said. “The basis of conversion therapy is the brutal lie that there is something wrong with gay and lesbian people.”
The American Psychological Association does not recommend “curing” same-sex attraction and states societal ignorance, prejudice and pressure to conform to heterosexual desires are the real dangers to the mental health of gender minorities.
“Just not being heterosexual or gender conforming is not a mental illness,” said Eleni Pinnow, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin Superior and president of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It does not need to be fixed.”
She said it has been the consensus in the psychological community since 1974, and there is no evidence that conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual preference or gender identity.
“Yes, we shouldn’t have to have an ordinance like this, just like we shouldn’t have to have active shooter drills in schools,” said Mary Smith-Johnson, a Duluth special education teacher and member of the Superior School Board, speaking outside of that role.
However, Carol Peterson and Joan Medlin of Superior spoke in favor of parental rights the ban would usurp.
“Superior families celebrate who they are, and we can be trusted to choose proper care for our child in distress without an ordinance that may cause extra stress on the family,” Peterson said.
“I support her views on parental rights being ignored,” Medlin said. “That is very serious and could bring lawsuits. There are voices that are not here tonight. Other parents in the city of Superior, grandparents, that will be very upset with a ban.”
Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, who joined Ludwig in introducing the ordinance, said more than 15 city councils have passed similar ordinances.
“This ordinance was brought forward because there are real victims and survivors,” Van Sickle said. “We can’t deny that … city ordinances protect us from abandoned vehicles, long grass and rhinoceros. I don’t know what kind of cases we had on file at the time or what kind of complaints we were getting, but it was serious enough for this body to ban them and put some measure of prevention on the books.”
Council President Brent Fennessey said he agrees conversion therapy is harmful and ineffective, but he said the ordinance would be more meaningful if it came from the county. He made a motion to refer it to the joint City-County Committee to discuss.
The referral was supported by Fennessey and Councilors Jack Sweeney, Craig Sutherland, Keith Kern and Esther Dalbec.
Kern said he was “mortified” when he learned about conversion therapy but he looked forward to working with other bodies to make the ordinance broader to encompass the entire county.
Councilor Dan Olson, Jenny Van Sickle, Warren Bender, Tylor Elm and Ludwig voted against the referral.
Mayor Jim Paine broke the tie in favor of a vote to adopt the ordinance Tuesday night.
“Well, let’s do it. Let’s pass it tonight,” Fennessey said.
“I agree,” Kern said. “I was hoping for a more comprehensive discussion about this but since that motion failed, I support it.”
The ordinance passed by a unanimous voice vote.
“I didn’t ask for my daughter to be gay,” Ludwig said. “God and nature gave her to me and my husband that way.”