Utah’s attempt to ban conversion therapy leads to emotional pleas from advocates and opponents

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Justin Utley who considers himself a two year conversion therapy survivor speaks in support of a proposed ban on conversion therapy as he attends the public hearing before state regulators in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Justin Utley remembers being told by his therapists that the word gay is a verb and not a noun.

“That I would only be gay if I act gay,” said Utley, a Salt Lake City resident who said he survived two years of talk therapy aimed at changing his sexual orientation — or what’s more commonly known as “conversion therapy.”

His therapists insisted his same-sex attraction must be related to childhood trauma and told him he was suppressing memories of sexual abuse. Though he was never abused, he said he believed them at the time. They were the experts.

He said these experiences stripped him of his identity and dignity at the time, and on Thursday, he implored state officials to adopt a conversion-therapy ban so other children won’t have to suffer as he did.

“Religious free speech and parental rights do not and have never included a legal right to abuse children or inflict or impose unethical and disproven methods of therapy,” he said.

Utley was one of several dozen speakers at an emotional three-hour public hearing over proposed rules that would prohibit state-licensed mental health professionals from trying to turn a gay child straight or alter a minor’s gender identity. Broadly condemned by mental health and medical professionals, conversion therapy has already been banned in 18 other states, and LGBTQ advocates say it’s past time for Utah to follow suit.

Equality Utah and other advocates see the ban as a step toward lowering the state’s suicide rate, which is the fifth highest in the nation. Conversion therapy has been linked to depression and suicide risk among minors, and supporters of a ban say it would be a lifesaving change.

A recent national survey cited during Thursday’s hearing found that LGBTQ youths who’d undergone conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide. The Trevor Project’s survey, which had 34,000 respondents, also found that 57% of transgender or nonbinary youths who’d experienced conversion therapy reported they’d tried to commit suicide within the past year.

“These damages are real," The Trevor Project’s Casey Pick testified. “They are ongoing.”

People look on during a hearing Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in Salt Lake City. LGBTQ people who say they suffered shame and suicidal thoughts after undergoing gay conversion therapy urged Utah state officials to approve a proposed rule that would prohibit Utah psychologists from the practice that is already banned in 18 states. Opponents who spoke during the hearing countered that the rule should be tabled because they contend it will prevent parents from getting their children help with "unwanted" homosexual feelings. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

On the other side of the issue were conservative groups, parents and therapists who criticized the proposed rule change as too extreme, saying it would tie the hands of counselors seeking to treat vulnerable youths.

Mary Taylor, who spoke as a member of the Empowered Families Coalition and also heads Pro-Life Utah, said she has a friend whose gender identity was shaped by a childhood molestation. Because of that trauma, any therapy affirming her friend’s gender identity would’ve been damaging, Taylor said.

“There’s been a lot of stories here today,” Taylor said in summary. “And I honor and respect every single one of them. But I think if there’s one thing we could learn, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all."

Under the proposed rule change, which was crafted at the behest of Gov. Gary Herbert, it would be a breach of professional conduct for a psychologist or therapist to try to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client younger than 18. Penalties for violating this rule could range from censure to loss of professional license.

An array of medical and mental health professionals spoke in favor of the rule change during the hearing, saying so-called conversion therapy can fracture the identities of LGBTQ youths and lead to depression, substance abuse and suicidal thinking.

“Conversion therapy is, at its core, discriminatory, exploitative and dangerous,” said Emily Bleyl, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers for Utah, reading from a letter signed by more than 320 social workers and allies. “There is no empirical evidence that sexual orientation and gender identity can be altered through therapy, and research has found that attempts to do so are dangerous.”

Also denouncing the practice was McKrae Game, who formerly led a conversion therapy organization in South Carolina. Game recently came out as gay and disavowed his former work.

“I could see the pain in the teens I worked with," Game said. “They were torn between their thoughts, family, friends and the world around them.”

Now that the public hearing is over, officials with the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing will continue to weigh the rule change, and if they stick with the current language, the measure could take effect as soon as Oct. 22. Tweaking the rules or pulling them altogether would trigger another public hearing, according to a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Commerce.

Advocates earlier this year had hoped to add Utah to the list of states that prohibit conversion therapy. They built a coalition of mental health representatives and nonprofit leaders, negotiated a proposed ban that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could live with and enlisted two Republican lawmakers to shepherd the measure through the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Then, they watched their plans fall apart after a coordinated attack by right-wing groups contending that the bill would’ve silenced therapists. With the legislative approach hitting a wall, Herbert asked state regulators to step in by crafting rules based on peer-reviewed scientific research.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Taryn Hiatt, with the American Foundation for Suidice Prevention and Rob Moolman, executive director with the Pride Center react as therapist Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen (center) tells the crowd that an LDS teen aquaintance struggling with gender identity she knows committed suicide Tuesday evening. LGBT supporters with Equality Utah and therapists say they will continue to fight conversion therapy during a press conference to condemn the passage of HB399, March 6, 2019. The House Judiciary Committee approved a substitute bill by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, on Tuesday that would allow therapists to have some discussion about changing sexual orientation with young patients.

The arguments leveled Thursday against the proposed rule echoed the testimony against the bill earlier this year. Stephen Done, an Orem blogger who writes that he experiences same-sex attraction but does not identify as gay, said he’s benefited from therapies that would be prohibited by the proposed rule. A handful of parents portrayed the restrictions as a form of government overreach that would infringe on their ability to raise their children as they saw fit.

Provo therapist Jeff Robinson also opposed the rule changes, saying that he helps many clients who are religious and choose to favor their heterosexual attractions over their same-sex attractions.

“The client’s self-determination is paramount,” he said. “Clients make their own choices about how they want to live their lives."

While he testified Thursday that his counseling does not attempt a “shift in sexual orientation,” his website states that he helps clients “struggling with homosexual problems” and focused his dissertation on Latter-day Saint men who have “successfully overcome homosexuality."

A critic of the rules as written, Maria Olsen is a firm believer in banning conversion therapy but testified that the proposed language is too weak. Olsen, of Salt Lake City, also argued the proposed rule doesn’t adequately protect against attempts to change gender expression.

Rep. Craig Hall, a West Valley City Republican who sponsored this year’s bill on conversion therapy, said he will evaluate the finalized state rules to determine if any further legislative action is necessary. It’s possible the administrative change will be sufficient to safeguard youths, he said.

Beyond the practical significance of the ban, Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, said it’s also meaningful because of what it will communicate to the state’s LGBTQ community.

A ban would “be sending a message to gay and transgender children that they are valued, that they are loved and that they belong here in Utah,” Williams said. “This act alone will save lives.”