Equality Utah’s Troy Williams blasts governor, quits a state task force on youth suicide over changes to conversion therapy bill

A prominent LGBTQ advocate is stepping off a state suicide task force with a blistering resignation letter that accuses Gov. Gary Herbert of turning his back on gay youths and casting his lot with therapists who view queer identities as a problem to be solved.

Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, released the letter publicly Wednesday, the day after what he called the “hostile takeover” of a bill to ban licensed therapists from trying to change the gender identity or sexual orientation of minors.

The governor has made some fine-sounding promises about suicide prevention among LGBTQ youths, Williams wrote in his letter of resignation from the Governor’s Youth Suicide Task Force. But Herbert’s support for drastic changes to the conversion therapy bill — a measure introduced to decrease suicide risk among gay youths — brought Williams to the conclusion that the governor’s words are hollow.

“It is clear you have no interest in keeping your promise, nor are you interested in the plight of LGBTQ youth,” Williams wrote in a Wednesday letter. “I will not be window dressing to provide the Task Force cover. If you change your mind and wish to seriously engage the LGBTQ community, you know where to find me.”

Williams was joined by Taryn Hiatt, of the Utah chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who also announced her resignation from the task force.

The two departures come a day after the House Judiciary Committee approved a substitute version of HB399 over the objections of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall.

The West Valley City Republican’s original proposal would have banned licensed therapists from conducting the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy with minors, in which an attempt is made to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of an LGBTQ patient.

Herbert had previously described some forms of conversion therapy as “barbaric,” and the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had taken a neutral position on Hall’s bill.

But committee members, particularly Reps. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, and Brady Brammer, R-Highland, advocated for a substitute that removed “gender identity” from the bill’s language and instead focuses on practices that cause pain or physical distress. Williams and Hall have said the revised version of HB399 would do nothing to root out conversion therapy in the state.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, Lisonbee announced that Herbert had signed off on the substitute language, and the governor’s office later confirmed his support for the revised version.

“In opposition to the leading medical and mental health experts, Governor Herbert sided with the hostile takeover of this legislation by Representative Lisonbee and Representative Brammer,” Williams said in a Wednesday news conference. “Governor Herbert turned his back on LGBTQ youth. He turned his back on the leading medical and mental health experts. And he sided with conversion therapists.”

In Wednesday letters to Williams and Hiatt, Herbert said he was sorry to learn of their resignations and valued the expertise of both.

“I am anxious to ensure that these precious youth — of limitless potential and boundless worth — are loved and accepted for who they are,” Herbert wrote. “Our shared goal of reducing teen suicide should remain our primary focus and objective.”

Teens should have access to “trusted professionals” with whom they can discuss their thoughts and feelings, Herbert wrote, adding that it’s also important to “protect the rights of parents in counseling with their children in these sensitive matters.”

Both letters concluded with an invitation to meet with Herbert.

In a tweet, Williams dismissed the governor’s letter as nothing more than “empty rhetoric and platitudes.”

Herbert formed a community task force in early 2018 to tackle the state’s soaring suicide numbers, and Williams said he was initially honored to be appointed. But to his frustration, the task force did little to tackle the problem of suicide among LGBTQ teens, rejecting a proposed anti-bullying statute that Williams brought to them, his letter stated.

Earlier this year, Williams wrote, he introduced the proposed conversion therapy ban to the governor’s office and later negotiated the language with the LDS Church. The final version closely matched the bans passed in 15 other states.

On the other hand, the substitute favored by the judiciary committee contains a false definition of conversion therapy, one that would offer cover to those who practice it, a Provo-based therapist said during the news conference.

“I know therapists who would then say, ‘I don’t practice conversion therapy by the law.’ And yet they would go ahead and practice conversion therapy," said therapist Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen.

Brammer said that it’s unfair to accuse him and Lisonbee of hijacking the bill and that they made a good-faith effort to design a proposal that would pass muster in the committee and on the House floor. Their concern was that Hall’s language was overly broad and would stifle legitimate forms of therapy, so they drafted a substitute that bans assertions and actions rather than intentions, he said. Their version would prohibit practices causing pain or discomfort and bar therapists from asserting that a sexual orientation change was possible or necessary.

Critics say this language would be easily sidestepped by conversion therapists, and Brammer acknowledges it might not be perfect. But he said it would be progress.

“That may not be the touchdown that people wanted," he said Wednesday. “But it does move the ball."

Williams noted that the committee’s version of the conversion therapy bill has been “circled,” or put on hold, in the House, and he doesn’t expect it will advance any further this session. In a Wednesday interview, Hall agreed that he doesn’t see a path forward for the bill this session.

“We knew that it would be a little bit of an uphill battle with this topic,” Hall said. “It’s a sensitive issue. A lot of people have really strong personal opinions about it, and that’s fine."

Williams says advocates will work to educate lawmakers about conversion therapy over the interim and will return “year after year after year until this lethal practice is prohibited.”