Herbert apologizes to group of young protesters for an ‘enormous misunderstanding’ over the conversion therapy bill

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.

A group of young people incensed over the demise of a conversion therapy bill in the Utah Legislature staged a sit-in outside Gov. Gary Herbert’s office on Thursday, resolved not to move until the state’s chief executive had apologized.

And it worked.

At 2 p.m., Amelia Damarjian and Isaac Reese, both 19, were the first to arrive for the demonstration over Herbert’s decision to support dramatic changes to the bill. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall was initially written to protect LGBTQ youths from the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy, or attempts to alter sexual orientation or gender identity. But earlier this week, a House committee stripped out the original language and — with Herbert’s stamp of approval — adopted a new version that advocates say would do nothing to stop the dangerous practice.

“It’s disheartening to see a bill that was originally intended to protect LGBTQ youth be stripped away to only help protect the therapists that are committing these atrocities against young people,” Reese, of Salt Lake City, said.

Several hours after the protest began, a group of more than 30 had gathered near the door to the executive offices when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox walked out to deliver a letter from Herbert.

In it, the governor wrote that his intention in supporting an amended version of the conversion therapy bill was “never to harm you.”

“We have had an enormous misunderstanding, and I am sorry,” the Republican governor wrote. “I met with Rep. Hall this morning, and we agreed to continue working on this.”

After carrying out the letter, Cox sat down cross-legged near the demonstrators and began listening to their stories. The lieutenant governor said he’d been surprised when the House Judiciary Committee refused to pass the bill, HB399, without significant revisions. LGBTQ advocates have said the new version of the bill would be worse than the status quo, and Hall has effectively killed the legislation this session.

The ban’s original language was negotiated between Equality Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which took a neutral position on HB399. Cox said he and other supporters had perhaps been too focused on the church’s stance.

“There was a feeling that if we can just get them to neutral, then we’d be fine,” Cox told the demonstrators. “And so we didn’t spend really any time with any of the other legislators. And I think ... in retrospect, that was a mistake.”

The governor’s office over the past couple of days has faced backlash for signing on to the substitute bill offered up by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield. On Wednesday, Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, resigned from the governor’s youth suicide task force, saying he refused to be “window dressing” for a group that wasn’t serious about protecting LGBTQ teens.

And Damarjian, of Orem, took Cox to task on Twitter for making a “big speech” about tolerance and love after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando but then failing to stand up for a firm ban on conversion therapy.

On Thursday evening, after receiving Herbert’s apology and talking with Cox, Damarjian said she appreciated the gestures and that the lieutenant governor took time to listen to a couple of demonstrators describe their painful experiences with conversion therapy. But these gestures are just the first step, she said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful that something happened,” she said. “But ... we’ve just been getting a lot of platitudes, nice words, speeches for I don’t know how many years. ... I think I’ll need to see something more tangible to really have that level of trust.”

In his letter, Herbert wrote that he’d met with Hall on Thursday morning and that they’d agreed to continue working on banning conversion therapy for minors. Williams has also said advocates will be back “year after year after year” until the prohibition is passed.

Cox said he and others plan to reach out to legislators before next year’s session for one-on-one conversations about banning conversion therapy. They’ll also continue to engaged the LDS Church, he said.

“We’ll ... see if we can get them from neutral to support. That would be helpful, and I don’t think we’re far away from this,” he said.

In response to one of Damarjian’s tweets, Cox said that what she’s read “isn’t the whole story” and that Herbert does support a conversion therapy ban. Upon realizing that there weren’t enough committee votes to pass the bill as originally conceived, the governor decided to back the substitute so some version of a ban could succeed this session, he wrote.