Student Senator testifies against conversion therapy at state capitol

Matthew Lehner speaks in front of State Legislative committee


Photo by Toby Mohr

Matthew Lehner speaking at a campaign event last fall.

UW-Eau Claire Student Senator Matthew Lehner testified before a state legislative committee to speak against conversion therapy in the state of Wisconsin.

On Jan. 12, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules held a public hearing to decide if the ban on conversion therapy implemented in 2020 by a board overseeing medical administrators should be overturned.

Conversion therapy is the practice of attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of an LGBTQ person and has been largely discredited by most medical researchers, according to a UCLA Law study

When Lehner heard about the hearing to overturn the ban on conversion therapy, he said as an openly bisexual person, he felt motivated to speak on the issue.

“I heard about this effort to overturn the ban and as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I was very taken aback,” Lehner said. “I was close to the Capitol so I decided to drive down.”

Lehner told the committee they should leave the decision to the medical experts on the licensing board and conversion therapy is dangerous for people in the LGBTQ community.

“While I have been fortunate to never go through conversion therapy, I was there to let them know we exist, we vote, we live in their districts,” he said. “This practice is wrong and they should listen to medical experts.”

In addition to serving on UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate, Lehner is president of the College Democrats student organization. He also ran for a seat on the Eau Claire County Board in 2022, but lost to incumbent Jim Dunning.

Lehner said he is usually comfortable talking with elected officials, but this time was different.

“Usually I can keep my composure during meetings on these topics, but this was a very hard committee meeting for me to sit through,” Lehner said. “There were a lot of people, particularly on the Republican side that were just frankly ignorant. I was disgusted by some of the comments people said.”

The Republican lead committee temporarily overturned the ban on conversion therapy, voting 6-4 along party lines. The ruling states that the licensing board overstepped its authority by initiating the ban in 2020. 

Republican representative Adam Neylon, vice chair of the committee, said the purpose of the hearing was not to discuss the merits of conversion therapy, only the legality of the licensing board’s ban, according to WPR.

“That is a question for the Legislature as it is public policy and deals with speech issues,” Neylon said.

Lehner said he was not surprised by the ruling but was still disappointed by the committee’s action.

“I came into the meeting knowing that the ban would probably get overturned, but what took me aback was the comments and rhetoric from the Republican side,” Lehner said. “I think if this party wants to grow, they need to listen to their Queer constituents, and they don’t do that.”

Lehner said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is harmful to LGBTQ people in Wisconsin. He said universities need to protect and support students in this community.

“UW-Eau Claire is a very open and welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ folks and we need to make sure we continue to foster a welcoming environment on our campuses,” he said.

Lehner said that while he was disappointed in the committee’s ruling, he is still grateful for having the chance to speak.

“I’m very grateful to live in a country where we can go to our house of government, see the people who have been elected to supposedly lead us and speak our mind to them,” Lehner said. “It makes me very grateful to live in a democracy.”

Mohr can be reached at [email protected].