Utah lawmaker complains of ‘vile messages’ after her changes torpedoed the conversion therapy bill

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City confers with Judiciary chair Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, during the House Judiciary Committee meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Hall watched lawmakers dismantle his bill to end conversion therapy and replace it with an alternative that he says would do nothing to stop the widely-discredited practice. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

A Utah representative is saying that she and her family are facing an “onslaught of vitriol, the likes of which I have never seen” since she helped make major changes to a bill that would’ve banned conversion therapy on minors.

In a Monday email to fellow House colleagues, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee apologized for any "tension I have brought to our body" and said she never intended to cause pain.

The wave of criticism comes after Lisonbee and Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, last week spearheaded a rewrite of a bill meant to bar licensed therapists from trying to alter the sexual orientations or gender identities of minors. The revisions outraged LGBTQ advocates, who said the new version of the bill would do nothing to protect Utah’s young people from the dangerous practice of conversion therapy.

Also last week, an Associated Press report brought to light some of Lisonbee’s past Facebook comments about LGBTQ individuals, including one that asked whether living a “homosexual lifestyle” might cause individuals to attempt suicide.

Since then, some have been calling for Lisonbee to step down or asking her to apologize for making homophobic comments.

Lisonbee wrote to fellow lawmakers that the six-year-old posts were shared on her brother-in-law's page and were made public by her relatives.

So many "vile messages" have been flooding Lisonbee's social media pages that she shut down her Facebook and Twitter accounts, she wrote in the letter.

“On Friday, I was informed by Law Enforcement that a group of people are coming to protest in front of my house tomorrow. I was encouraged to either secure my family inside the house or take my children and leave town,” the Clearfield Republican wrote.

A group of LGBTQ activists protesting outside the Utah House chambers on Monday evening said they’ve asked Lisonbee to apologize for her hurtful statements. But while they vehemently disagree with her politics and past statements, they are also dismayed by the misogynistic attacks that have been leveled against her.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ermiya Fanaeian, with a group of young people protesting in front of the House Chamber, calling on legislators to support a conversion therapy ban and denounce homophobia and transphobia in Salt Lake City on Monday March 11, 2019.

“I can imagine she feels really intimidated right now,” Nathan Dalley, 19, who helped organize the protest, said.

The three demonstration organizers — Dalley, Ermiya Fanaeian and Cody Craig — sent state leaders a letter asking them to condemn homophobia and transphobia and to include transgender individuals in bills written to protect LGBTQ people. (Among other things, Lisonbee’s conversion therapy bill rewrite excluded transgender youths.)

“House leadership must recognize the vulnerability of Transgender Utahns, validate their humanity and right to basic freedoms, and support their livelihood with future legislative efforts,” the letter stated.

They said Lisonbee hadn’t yet responded to their letter requesting an apology.

Lisonbee’s email to House members misattributed the AP article to the The Salt Lake Tribune, saying the Salt Lake-based daily “drew incorrect conclusions” between her social media posts and her work on the conversion therapy bill. She did not cite specific examples of any inaccuracy but said, “Obviously, many things have changed surrounding these issues and science has continued to inform."

Like other news media, The Tribune did publish the wire story produced by the AP. Lisonbee later sent a follow-up email to lawmakers apologizing for her errors after being pressed for clarification by a Tribune reporter.

Her letter went on to explain her rationale for pushing changes to the language of HB399, which she felt was overly broad and too vague. Her objective was not to gut the bill, she wrote, but to help put forward language capable of succeeding in the Legislature.

"The legislative process is rarely all or nothing. The idea that there is only one way to prohibit a bad practice is not only naive, it is patently false," she wrote.

However, the proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, has said Lisonbee’s version of the bill is worse than the status quo and has put the revised legislation on hold in the House, saying he doesn’t see a path forward for it this session. Meanwhile, Equality Utah representatives have accused Lisonbee and Brammer of waging a “hostile takeover” of a bill that was carefully crafted by gay rights advocates and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lisonbee on Monday responded by accusing Equality Utah of being unwilling to negotiate and instead going on the attack.

Equality Utah has condemned the reported flood of vitriol against Lisonbee.

In a Monday statement, Equality’s executive director, Troy Williams, wrote that he is heartbroken over Lisonbee’s past Facebook comments. However, he continued by writing that he was “equally heartbroken to learn that some people have responded to these opinions by intimidating and threatening the legislator who expressed them.”

The Tribune asked Lisonbee to comment on her letter, and Greg Hartley, chief of staff for the Utah House, responded on her behalf.

“She’d prefer to focus on this final week of the session and is willing to work with stakeholders over the interim on this legislation,” Hartley wrote.

Reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report.