‘We don’t want to lose any of you’ — supporters of a ‘conversion therapy’ ban in Utah say it will help save lives of LGBTQ youths

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Connell O'Donovan of Salt Lake who calls himself an ex-Mormon says he endured 10-years of conversion therapy in high school and college as he lends his experience and attends a press event at the Utah Capitol where legislation was being introduced to ban conversion therapy on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. .

Three years ago, teenager Nathan Dalley was depressed, anxious and gripped by the belief that the only way out was to stop being gay.

So, the Lehi teen turned to a therapist, who assured him that it would be possible to “fix” his sexual orientation. Dalley could overcome his same-sex attraction if he became more masculine by bulking up, wearing manly clothing or playing sports with other guys. And when he did “have gay thoughts,” he should snap a rubber band against his wrist, the therapist advised.

But these techniques only made Dalley plunge further into despair. There were days the skin on his wrist broke down because he had used the band so often, he says. Isolated from his friends and told to deny his sexual identity, he says he felt “erased,” and he ultimately tried to end his life with an overdose of sleeping pills.

“I’m just thankful today that I wasn’t successful. Kids just like me are not as lucky as I am,” Dalley, now a 19-year-old University of Utah student, said during a Thursday news conference. “The therapy that was supposed to be changing my sexuality ... made me spiral deeper into depression and anxiety and shame about who I am.”

Dalley joined advocates and lawmakers at the Utah Capitol in calling for a statewide ban on so-called conversion therapy of the sort he experienced.

Utah could become the 16th state in the nation to prohibit use of the controversial and widely discredited therapy on minors, a potentially lifesaving change, the bill’s supporters say. Conversion therapy, also called reparative therapy, can cause emotional and psychological trauma to LGBTQ youths, who are already at a greater risk of suicide, advocates say.

With two Republican lawmakers guiding the proposal through the Legislature — and a statement of no opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — ban proponents say it’s well positioned for success this session.

Sen. Dan McCay, who’s running the bill with Rep. Craig Hall of West Valley City, acknowledged that he’s not a “prototypical sponsor” but said it’s important for all of the state’s youths to feel loved and accepted.

“We want you, every one of you, to be part of the future," McCay, R-Riverton, said. “We don’t want to lose any of you.”

The bill’s prohibition will cover only state-licensed therapists and will not extend to clergy, following a pattern set by other states that have barred the practice for minors. Life coaches and other unlicensed counselors would also be left out of the prohibition, but Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he hopes they will shy away from the practice voluntarily.

Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor who drafted the legislation, said the bill would define conversion therapy as any treatment that attempts to alter a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The state would investigate complaints about licensed therapists who might be engaging in the banned practice and could sanction those who are violating the law.

It’s difficult to tell how widespread the practice is in Utah, since providers don’t openly advertise themselves as practitioners of techniques that have been broadly denounced by medical and mental-health organizations, Rosky said.

However, an Equality Utah survey last year found that more than 100 LGBT respondents reported that they had experienced conversion therapy. And nationwide, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law has reported that nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, about half of them as adolescents.

Research last year by Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project indicated that efforts to change sexual orientation were linked with double or triple the rates of attempted suicide among young people.

Connell O’Donovan, a Salt Lake City resident who attended Thursday’s news conference, said the damage inflicted on him three decades ago in conversion therapy still causes him pain.

Initially, his religious leaders began meeting with him regularly, telling him to sing hymns when he had impure thoughts, read LDS Church literature and run long distances to exhaust himself. Later, in college, he underwent hypnotherapy to change his sexual orientation.

“While I was under hypnosis, he [the therapist] split me into gay Connell and straight Connell and then had me visualize Jesus coming down from heaven and utterly destroying gay Connell,” he said. “I became profoundly depressed, suicidal. ... Years and years of therapy later trying to heal that experience, I’m not.”

O’Donovan, who’s been an LGBTQ activist, said passing a conversion therapy ban in Utah would help give his pain some meaning.

Help is available

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts is asked to call the 24-Hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide, and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.