AUGUSTA— Mount Desert Island High School Colby Bennoch and Gianna Turk offered testimony Feb. 14 in favor of a bill that would ban conversion therapy practices that use shame, pain or coercion to discourage same-sex attraction and alter one’s sexual orientation.
Bennoch, 15, of Mount Desert, and Turk, 16, of Lamoine, spoke during a public hearing on LD 912 held by the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford).
“[There were] a lot of people and [there was] a lot of tension,” said Lin Gould, science teacher and advisor to the Gay Straight Diversity Alliance at MDIHS, who drove the students and others to Augusta for the hearing.
They listened to five hours of testimony, which included supporters of conversion therapy, and then left before the testimony was finished.
Bennoch and Turk volunteered to make the trip, Gould said, after a discussion about the bill at a Gay Straight Diversity Alliance meeting. Staff from the nonprofit Equality Maine helped the students edit their testimony.
Bennoch recalled the first moment he experienced tension in his family about his sexual orientation.
“I was talking to my mother, I had just shown her something that was important to me,” Bennoch told the legislators. “But her response was this: ‘You do realize people are going to think you’re gay.’
“It confused me at the time,” he continued. “To be fair, she was right, but she said it in a way that really impacted me. Whether it was because she didn’t want me to be bullied, or because she didn’t want me to be gay, I still don’t know.”
Bennoch is a freshman who said in his testimony that he is bisexual. His situation is “mild” compared to some of the stories he has heard from his friends, he said. He has a friend who was kicked out of their house because they came out as transgender.
Turk, a sophomore, said that the practice of conversion therapy can “emotionally and physically scar people for life.”
“They get told that the way they are is wrong, that they need saving, that they need to change,” she told lawmakers. “There is no comfort to be had in that, which is especially painful because this part of these people might already be their vulnerability.”
Turk was nervous about speaking at first, she told the Islander Friday, but with the support of Bennoch and the others, it was less intimidating.
“I’m not too much of a nervous person, but it was my first time speaking in front of a legislative committee, so it hit pretty hard at first,” Turk said. “When I was at the podium, my hand shook as I wrote down my name and such, but once I started talking, it was fine.”
Gould told the Islander that she is proud of the students and also of the high school as an institution that “supports kids being empowered.”
“They’ve taken a big step toward improving the future for all of the youth in the state of Maine,” she said.