Robert Gehrke: Don’t follow the LDS Church’s advice when it comes to dangerous ‘conversion therapy’

Robert Gehrke

A few years ago, the Utah Senate — the Greatest Deliberative Body in Utah — had a revealing debate about nursing mothers in the workplace.

One senator fretted that babies would be taken into coal mines. Another complained about the “little secretary who works for me” bringing her baby to his office and leaving toys everywhere and he seemed genuinely surprised to learn the child might not be in the office.

“They’re gonna do … milking?” he asked.

The point being that the Utah Legislature is not always the best when it comes to grasping fairly rudimentary issues. State lawmakers are much, much worse at navigating incredibly complex, nuanced and politically fraught topics — for example, banning “conversion therapy.”

We saw that play out earlier this year, when Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, worked for months with mental health professionals, the medical community and religious leaders — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to prohibit the discredited and harmful practice of trying to change someone’s sexual attraction or gender identity.

Studies have found that young people subjected to conversion therapy have increased risk of substance abuse and addiction, severe depression, risky sexual behavior and suicide — and that suicide risk continues into adulthood.

Then a handful of ultra conservatives partnering with the Utah Eagle Forum blew up the process by muddying the waters by using scare tactics and raising baseless concerns and ended up killing the bill.

Gov. Gary Herbert — prompted by a suggestion from a young person passionate about the issue — did something that makes a lot of sense: He took the issue out of the realm of the competing agendas and inflammatory rhetoric of politics and asked the state board that licenses therapists to use its professional expertise to craft a rule regarding the practice.

Over the past few months, the board held an emotion-packed three-hour hearing on the proposed rule and has received 2,457 written comments from the public, ranging from heartfelt stories of personal experiences with conversion therapy to simple statements of support or opposition.

It’s one particular letter — from LDS Family Services — that is drawing a lot of attention and, given the church’s clout, could derail the entire process.

The letter criticizes the proposed rule for having ambiguous language, inadequate religious protections and a lack of self-determination for patients and their parents. It suggests the Legislature, not the psychological licensing board, should be in charge of the process.

Coming on the heels of apostle Dallin Oaks’ latest comments insisting that God made binary genders — male or female — immutable, the church weighing in on the issue should not come as a surprise.

Still, with 250 licensed professional therapists treating more than 28,000 patients every year, LDS Family Services is one of the largest mental health providers in the state. Despite what some might argue, it deserves to have its views heard and considered.

The church acknowledges that “there is consensus in the mental health community on the discredited practices, such as aversion therapy, that seek to change sexual orientation.” It’s a welcome disavowal of practices, according to former patients, that church therapists utilized within the past decade.

But the technical concerns it raises about whether the proposed rule is too vague and could slop over and inhibit legitimate therapeutic practices are actually fairly and neutrally addressed.

For example, the church posits, could a therapist assist a teen boy who feels like he watches too much gay pornography? Or help a young woman who is engaging in risky or damaging sexual behavior with a member of the same sex?

I asked Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, a licensed family therapist who supports the bill, those very questions. The answer is yes.

“It’s pretty clear to me that a therapist could help a child with pornography as long as it’s not targeted … only because of its connection with a particular child’s feelings or patterns or attraction,” she said.

So, in the pornography example, a therapist could provide the same help to a gay or transgender patient as could be provided to someone hooked on heterosexual pornography.

The same logic applies to the church’s alarm over religious protections. A Latter-day Saint therapist could help a young LGBTQ person wanting to remain abstinent for religious reasons in exactly the same manner as the therapist would help any other client with the same goal.

As for the church’s overarching recommendation — that because of the complexity and nuance surrounding conversion therapy, the Legislature should be the one to try to reach consensus — is flat wrong.

You can probably see why the church would want to go that route. Given that 90% of the lawmakers are members of the faith, the Legislature would be a forum where the faith could (as it has in the past) control the outcome.

Logically, however, it doesn’t make sense to say an issue is too complex for professionals trained in the field and instead hand it over to legislators who think nursing mothers are “milking” and might take newborns into coal mines.

Lawmakers can — and should, for that matter — review the rule when it’s complete and weigh the pros and cons.

For now, however, the governor needs to let this process run its course, free of political or religious pressure, and let the experts rely on science and data to fashion a solution that will protect young people from an archaic and dangerous practice.