The Salt Lake County Council is calling on the Utah Legislature to end a widely discredited form of therapy that attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ youth — a move that comes just months after lawmakers on Capitol Hill gutted a proposal that would have done so.
The resolution, passed unanimously by the partisan council on Tuesday, urges state lawmakers to protect minors from so-called conversion therapy to prohibit mental health professionals from subjecting minors to “harmful” and “discredited practices.”
“When so-called conversion therapy fails to work, Utahns told us of their feelings of despair,” Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told the council before the vote. “They felt that they had failed their therapist, failed their church, failed their families and maybe even failed their God. That sense of failure and the lack of self worth, that’s the danger.”
All of the nation’s leading mental health and medical associations — including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association — have rejected conversion therapy, which has been linked to suicide and depression.
A recent study published by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University found the rates of attempted suicide among those whose parents had pushed for them to change were more than double the rate of LGBT young adults who reported no conversion experiences. High levels of depression more than doubled as well.
For County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who sponsored the resolution with Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, the issue is deeply personal.
He was 17 years old when he came to Orem from Idaho in the late 1990s, and was still coming to terms with his sexuality when he was asked if he wanted “therapy for my sexual orientation.”
“Not in a malicious way, but [the person thought] perhaps it could help me with what I was dealing with,” he told his colleagues on the council. “And I made the decision to turn down that offer. And to my family’s credit, I was not forced into anything at that time in my life. I often wonder how maybe my life would be different if I had undergone that.”
At Bradshaw’s recommendation, the council also voted to develop a Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force in Salt Lake County.
Some 16 states have banned certain counselors from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors, and supporters of the legislation in Utah have framed a legal change as a potentially life-saving move.
But efforts to pass a bill ending the practice of conversion therapy in Utah hit a snag in March, when lawmakers dismantled Republican Rep. Craig Hall’s HB399 in committee and replaced it with a version he said would do nothing to stop it. That version of the bill never made it to the House floor.
Hall, who was traveling Tuesday and was not available to speak by phone, said in a statement that he was glad to see support from the county.
"We believe this will help with our ultimate goal of the Legislature passing a statewide ban of conversion therapy,” he said in a message.
Clifford Rosky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah who was involved in the drafting of the original bill, said he also felt the council’s resolution sent a strong message to state lawmakers.
“Today’s unanimous vote is a powerful demonstration that protecting minors from the life-threatening practice of conversion therapy is not a partisan issue,” said Rosky, who also sits on Equality Utah’s advisory board. “This is a majority Republican legislative body and they had a unanimous vote in support of our bill — and that’s what we’re going to get from the Utah state Legislature next year.”
A signed copy of the resolution will be sent to the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and all legislators who represent constituents in Salt Lake County.
Several county residents, including some members of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, spoke against the resolution during the council’s public comment period, arguing that its language — which used the same definitions in Hall’s original bill — could hamper legitimate therapeutic practices.
“The Legislature did deal with this during the legislative session and there was a lot of work done in coming together with a compromise bill,” said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum and a Utah County resident. “Because the language that you’re addressing in your resolution that was in the original bill is very broad and has a chilling effect on so many therapists.”
Rosky dismissed those assertions, noting that the language in the bill he helped create was carefully crafted and is standard in other states as a way to ban “conversion therapy” practices.
Earlier this month, the partisan County Council called on the state’s mostly conservative six-member congressional delegation to push a number of immigration reforms, such as halting family separation policies and addressing the uncertainty facing those who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.