After three months of maneuvering, three failed votes and four different versions of the same legislation, the Jackson County Legislature on 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 abstensions 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?

Kansas City LGBTQ Commission has been calling for a ban for months

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.

On March 16, 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. 

“My reasoning was merely because I felt it was necessary to have some kind of notification attached to the ban,” Peyton said.  Although they haven’t said why they voted no. Since they typically vote as a group, it’s reasonable to assume DaRon McGee and Venessa Huskey voted against the bill, in support of finding a way to satisfy Peyton’s request for legal notification to people that the ban was law.   

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 

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.

Ordinance 5728, sponsored by Abarca, had a notification requirement Peyton wanted and  legislators debated whether the notification requirement in the Ordinance  would prevent the county from effectively enforcing the ban. 

That week all ordinances were voted down. 

Finally 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.”