Utah lawmakers are poised to consider a ban on so-called conversion therapy among minors, a widely discredited practice aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
And with an exemption for clergy, the measure will not encounter resistance from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I do see this as a historic moment,” Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said Wednesday. “We’re introducing legislation Thursday to protect youth from the harmful practice of conversion therapy, and we’re grateful that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes the harms of conversion therapy and has denounced the practice.”
Passing such a prohibition this session has been a priority for Equality Utah as a way of combating the state’s suicide rates, which are the fifth highest in the nation. Conversion therapy has been linked to depression and suicide risk among minors, according to an Equality Utah news release.
Marty Stephens, the church’s director of government relations, said the bill’s authors have been open to making sure the church’s counseling on sexual abstinence before marriage doesn’t fall under the proposed ban.
“We’ve repeatedly stated that the church denounces any therapy, including conversion or reparative therapy, that subjects individuals to abusive practices, not only in Utah but throughout the world,” Stephens, former Utah House speaker, said Wednesday. “We’ve appreciated the willingness of the sponsors of this legislation to work with us to make sure that counseling that’s in alignment with the church’s standards does not come under the definition of conversion therapy.”
The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Craig Hall of West Valley City and Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton, both Republicans, are expected to speak about the proposal during a Thursday news conference at the Utah Capitol.
"I'm proud to sponsor legislation that protects children from the harmful and discredited practice of so-called conversion therapy," Hall said in a prepared statement. "This legislation establishes regulatory standards and will have a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth."
Conversion therapy is a blanket term that encompasses a range of practices, such as administering electric shocks or dosing someone with nausea-inducing ipecac syrup in an attempt to lessen same-sex attraction, Williams said. It also could take the form of talk therapy that tries to connect sexual orientation with past traumas, he said.
Widely disavowed, this therapy no longer happens as overtly as it has in the past, he added, but varieties of it persist. Nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults in the United States have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, about half of them as adolescents, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
Stephens said the church doesn't practice conversion therapy and hasn't for many years.
“We hope those that experience same-sex attraction find compassion and understanding from family members, counselors and church members,” he said.
The bill’s prohibition will cover only licensed therapists and will not extend to clergy, following a pattern set by other states that have barred the controversial practice (15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted conversion therapy bans, the Human Rights Campaign reports). Life coaches and other unlicensed counselors would also be left out of the prohibition, Williams said, but he hopes they will take a cue from the ban legislation and shy away from the practice voluntarily.
The practice has been condemned by organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association, according to a list compiled by Equality Utah.