Gehrke: How one young woman moved Utah’s governor and put the state on a course to save lives

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Isaac Reese, 19 and Amelia Damarjian, 19, speak with Anna Lehnardt, a staffer with Gov. Gary Herbert's office outside of Herbert's heavily guarded office at the Capitol during a sit-in on conversion therapy.

What started as a protest turned into a discussion and ultimately could save the lives of young Utahns.

In the waning days of the legislative session, you’ll recall, a push to ban conversion therapy — a dangerous and discredited practice aimed at changing the sexual preference of LGBTQ youths — imploded.

Ultra-conservatives rallied to gut the bill and were able to go into a committee hearing touting the support of Gov. Gary Herbert. The sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, ended up pulling his amended bill, fearing this watered down version would do more harm than good.

For 19-year-old Amelia Damarjian, it felt like a betrayal, particularly by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, with whom she had developed a friendship and believed in his support on LGBTQ issues. She took to Twitter and confronted Cox in a blunt, public exchange.

“I really want to believe you care because I like you,” she wrote. “If I thought you were scum, I wouldn’t bother getting riled up. But I think you just don’t care enough, and that actually hurts more.”

Robert Gehrke

“Amelia, I am so sorry that you are hurting. Please know that I am hurting too,” Cox responded.

Damarjian, who has had several friends subjected to conversion therapy, said she felt sick about the bill’s demise and was texting Isaac Reese when they decided spontaneously to go to the governor’s office to demand an apology. She ditched work and within a half-hour was on her way to the Capitol, encouraging others via social media to join her for an impromptu sit-in.

Thirty people eventually showed up, and Cox came out to deliver a written apology from the governor.

“We have had an enormous misunderstanding,” Herbert wrote, “and I am sorry.”

Cox apologized, too, and sat with the group of young people and talked.

But the story didn’t end there.

While talking to Cox and members of the governor’s staff, Damarjian wondered why the state’s licensing board wasn’t already banning conversion therapy.

“It’s something I brought up because I was like, ‘It already feels like it shouldn’t be legal,’ ” she told me recently. “It feels like it’s a violation of ethical practices … and as I understood it, licensure is through [the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing], so there are other routes. Why aren’t they already doing that?”

“We said to Amelia, ‘Look, we’ll get back to you about what we might be able to do administratively to deal with this,’ ” said Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, “and the more we looked into it, the more it was clear this is actually a great way to go for a variety of reasons.”

Putting the issue in the hands of a board of trained professionals, familiar with the research and experienced in the practice, is smart. It brings expertise to the forefront and should ensure a decision is driven by the data, while removing this issue from the overheated and unpredictable political realm.

After a few months studying the issue, Herbert sent a letter to Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani, directing the Psychologist Licensing Board to develop recommendations to “ethically regulate psychological interventions” for LGBTQ children.

“Since I am not a psychologist, I do not presume to understand what inferences to draw from the psychological literature on this subject,” Herbert wrote. “Nonetheless, I am particularly troubled by what I have learned about interventions using physical distress. In my understanding, such techniques would seem to be unethical, and, therefore, I do not understand why they would be a part of professional practice.”

The governor also asked that the board consider guidance to help parents better understand the family dynamics involved when a parent sends a child to conversion therapy.

The board will have until Sept. 16 to come up with recommendations that will be massaged into a final rule. And this doesn’t preclude bringing legislation next session.

Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Utah, said they will keep pushing for a legislative ban, but said Herbert’s directive “is a very promising move forward.”

That’s because if the board draws on the available literature — and there is no reason to think it won’t — it will likely mean an end to conversion therapy in the state. A study last year found that LGBTQ youth subjected to conversion therapy were twice as likely to suffer from depression as those who were not and three times as likely to attempt suicide.

Youth who go through conversion therapy have increased risk of substance abuse and addiction, severe depression, risky sexual behavior and suicide, according to the American Psychological Association, which has disavowed the practice.

“I want to give full credit to Amelia,” Edwards said, although Damarjian is humble about it.

“A lot of people were fighting for this ban long before I got involved,” she said. “I’m personally proud of what I did, but I really feel like I was standing on the shoulders of so many other people who made this climate possible. I’m proud to see so many people’s efforts can come together and accomplish something meaningful.”

She’s right that there were a lot of people fighting long and hard for this cause. But it’s also true that banning conversion therapy in Utah will save countless young people’s lives and spare others anguish, and we’re on a path to do that now because a pissed-off young woman spoke up. She should be proud.