Utah bill to prohibit conversion therapy to minors is announced

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A press conference organized by Equality Utah to announce a bill that would prohibit licensed counselors from practicing therapies aimed at changing a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity drew a wide range of legislators and organizations to the Utah Capitol Thursday. The bill, HB399, is titled “Prohibition of the Practice of Conversion Therapy upon Minors” and “prohibits certain health care professionals from providing conversion therapy to a minor; and adds a violation of the prohibition to the list of conduct that constitutes unprofessional conduct for licensing purposes.”

Troy Williams, EU executive director, started by thanking members of the Utah Legislature for advancing anti-suicide measures as numbers of suicides and suicide attempts grows in the state.

“We know there is more than one factor that contributes to suicide, so there must be more than one solution,” Williams said. “As we’ve talked to people in the LGBTQ community, we hear about people’s experience with conversion therapy. We’ve talked to people in their late 60s and as young as 18 years old who went to therapists who tried to alter, fix, reduce, or cure their same-sex attraction.”

He said they all spoke of increased depression and their attempts of suicide.

Williams said EU approached Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, several months ago to spearhead the legislation and he agreed. Then, on the first day of the session, Sen. Dan McKay came to Williams saying he wanted to be the Utah Senate sponsor. McKay is known for being conservative, earning an 89 percent rating by the American Conservative Union and 98 percent by Libertas Institute.

“Senator Dan McKay?? Let’s do this!” Williams says he exclaimed.

Hall said he was proud to sponsor the legislation that “helps us protect children from conversion therapy.”

“We know that conversion therapy has been proven again and again to not be effective,” Hall said. “Fifteen states have prohibited conversion therapy because they understand that conversion therapy has proven to be not effective and is particularly harmful, especially to youth.”

McKay said the way this bill has been worked is what makes him proud to be a Utahn.

“This is what Utah does when Utah is at its best,” he said. “We come together, we work together, we put our arms around one another and we try and find solutions. And in my opinion, and we will see if my colleagues agree, this is the Utah we want.”

“This has been an education for me, as not a prototypical sponsor, potentially, for an issue like this. But it has been shown in this education process how important it is to our youth to understand how much we love you, how much we value you, and we want every single one of you to be part of the future. We don’t want to lose any of you.

University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky helped draft the bill and said it was based on all 15 states’ passed legislation, including six states where the legislation was signed by Republican governors.

Asked about the odds of the bill being passed in this legislative session, Rosky was optmistic.

“I think we are very confident this bill will pass,” Rosky said. “We have Republicans behind us, Democrats behind us. We’ve heard from key stakeholders in the community (pointing towards the Church Office Building). I don’t see why this wouldn’t pass this year.”

“We know that suicide is the leading cause of death among our youth. We know that recent studies show that LGBT youth who are subjected to conversion therapy have double the rates of depression and nearly three times the rate of suicide attempts. This is an urgent, pressing issue. As Sen. McKay said, this is what Utah does best: protect its children. And this bill protects children from conversion therapy, which is a dangerous and discredited praactice.”

Rosky quoted the definition of conversion therapy as, “any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client, including mental health therapy that seeks to change, eliminate, or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions, or feelings related to a patient or client’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill “is neutral with respect to sexual orientation or gender identity which provides assistance to a patient or client undergoing gender transition; provides acceptance, support, and understanding of a patient or client; facilitates a patient or client’s ability to cope, social support, and identity exploration and development; addresses unlawful, unsafe, premarital, or extramarital sexual activities in a manner that is neutral with respect to sexual orientation; or discusses with a patient or client the patient or client’s moral or religious beliefs or practices.”

The bill also specifically excludes “a clergy member or religious counselor who is acting substantially in a pastoral or religious capacity and not in the capacity of a health care professional; or a parent or grandparent who is a health care professional and who is acting substantially in the capacity of a parent or grandparent and not in the capacity of a health care professional.”

LDS Church releases statement

On Wednesday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that, since all of their concerns about the bill in relation to religious liberty issues have been satisfactorily addressed, they “do not oppose” the bill.

Because the bill only addresses state-certified mental health therapists, clergy and others who are not licensed medical professionals are not covered by it.

“As the church has repeatedly stated, we denounce any therapy, including reparative or conversion therapy, that subjects an individual to abusive practices not only in Utah, but throughout the world,” the church’s chief lobbyist, Marty Stephens, told media outlets.

“We appreciate the willingness of the sponsor of this legislation to work with us to make sure that counseling that is in line with the Church’s standards, such as abstinence before marriage, does not fall under the definition of conversion therapy,” Stephens said. “Our initial concerns over religious freedom issues have been addressed and resolved, so the church does not oppose the bill in its current form.”

Stephens went on to say church leaders hope those who “experience same-sex attraction find compassion and understanding from family members, professional counselors, and church members.”

Over the past decades, the church has, at many levels, been involved in therapies to change sexual orientation. Efforts at Brigham Young University included electro-shock and biofeedback therapies. Church leaders were heavily involved in Evergreen International, which had a stated mission to assist “people who want to diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.”

As such therapies proved fruitless, they were largely abandoned across the country. Evergreen closed its doors, replaced by North Star, the mission of which is to “provide a place of community for Latter-day Saints who experience homosexual attraction or gender identity incongruence.” Leaders of North Star say they take no position on whether sexual orientation can change, however, two co-founders of the group were heavily involved in People Can Change and its Journey Into Manhood project which promised the ability to change ones’ sexual attractions.

Journey Into Manhood is now called Brother’s Road and is still offering weekend retreats, though the website is being scrubbed to remove its “change” language. A Utah retreat scheduled this summer has been indefinitely postponed.

Recent stories of conversion therapy of teens

Two men went to the podium to tell their stories.

University of Utah student Nathan Dalley, 19, who grew up in Lehi, Utah, spoke of being out in high school, but also knew he was experiencing depression and anxiety at the age of 16.

“At the time I hated the fact that I was gay more than anything else and desperately wanted to do something to fit into my community,” Dalley said. “The messages I received about the LGBTQ community were all negative.”

“I determined the only way to get better was to not to be gay,” he continued. “I chose to enter into conversion therapy.”

He was assured by the therapist that his depression and his homosexuality could be fixed. He was given long-debunked advice that he was gay because of childhood trauma and bad relationships with male figures.

“I was told I could overcome my same-sex attraction if I became more muscular, played sports with other boys, talked with a more masculine voice, [and] wore more masculine clothing,” he continued. “One aversion technique involved wearing a rubber band on my wrist and snapping it every time I had gay thoughts.”

“It was because of this therapy that I began to loathe myself,” he said. “I thought more about suicide than ever … at one point, I tried to overdose with sleeping pills.”

He said he is now glad he was not successful, but other children were not as lucky. He said that conversion therapy is harmful and that he feels the negative effects of the therapy “every day.”

Arturo Fuentes also started conversion therapy while in high school in Provo, Utah, without his parents’ knowledge. He continued on with the therapy for 10 years as his therapists told him he was gay because of poor parenting, a bad relationship with his father, and an overbearing mother.

“My parents are wonderful people,” he said. ” I knew that if they found out I was gay and it was because of them, that would be hell for them. It was a horror I did not want to experience, so I vowed not to tell them.”

He was told that if he worked hard enough he would change. As change didn’t happen, he began to feel shame and went into a depression, distancing himself from friends and family. As he began to ideate dying, he decided it was time to tell his parents at the age of 28.

“The love that they shared towards me started my journey to self-love and self-healing,” he said.

He said that conversion therapy was an unfair burden on children.

“It’s my hope that we can eliminate this practice and focus on these beautiful, young members of the LGBTQ community and, rather than help in making them change, help them learn to love themselves.

Suicide issues

Taryn Aiken-Hyatt, Utah/Nevada director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the state needs to take vital steps to help end suicide within Utah’s LGBT community.

“We know that suicide happens because of risk factors, but there are also protective factors that can keep people safe,” Aiken-Hyatt said. “Increased risk happens within our LGBTQ community when we victimize, when we discriminate, and when we reject.”

“We protect this community when we affirm, when we accept, and when we love,” she said. “This practice is unethical and it cannot happen any longer.”

“This bill we deem as one of the most important suicide prevention pieces of legislation that will take place this session,” she continued. “To our LGBTQ community, we see you, we love you, and you are perfect just as you are. You do not need to change.”

The Trevor Project, the country’s largest crisis intervention and suicide prevention service for LGBTQ youth, issued a statement of hope for the bill

“We at The Trevor Project are grateful for the tremendous leadership shown by Sen. McCay, Rep. Hall, and the countless local LGBTQ advocates who have worked together to introduce strong protections from conversion therapy for Utah’s youth,” said Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project. “The introduction of this bill is a great accomplishment, and sends a powerful message that people in every state and political party can find common ground around protecting LGBTQ youth from this dangerous and discredited practice. The Trevor Project hears from Utahns in crisis every day. This legislation will save lives, and The Trevor Project is committed to seeing it pass.”

Photo from Sen. Derek Kitchen’s Facebook wall.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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