Utahns support banning ‘conversion therapy,’ comments show

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Feb. 21, 2019 file photo, Connell O'Donovan of Salt Lake says he endured 10-years of conversion therapy in high school and college as he supported a bill in the last legislative session that would have banned such therapy. The bill failed and now the state is proposing to institute the ban by professional rules.

Some were parents who lost children to suicide. Others were licensed counselors, students or advocates.

Nearly 2,500 people and organizations flooded the state with comments on a proposed rule prohibiting “conversion therapy” on minor patients, with less than 5% voicing opposition to the measure. The rest urged regulators to finalize the ban — and curb a practice that advocates and mental health professionals say endangers young lives.

“No one should experience the pain of being made to feel that a fundamental part of themselves is somehow wrong, confusing and in need of therapy to change who they are,” one person wrote to the state.

The comments, which were released Tuesday in response to a public records request, include deeply personal accounts from LGBTQ people who wrote about wrestling with depression, their fear of coming out and the rejection they'd faced when they did.

“I know first hand the hell LGBTQ youth live. Having to live closeted and afraid what would happen if we told anyone,” wrote one 64-year-old gay man. “We already hated ourselves because of what society was telling us, then compound that with someone telling us that we needed to be cured, as if we were sick!! That’s as cruel as it gets.”

The Tribune has not used commenters’ names in most cases because the individuals had not been contacted for consent to publish what in many cases are their personal stories.

Michael Ferguson, a former Utahn involved in a landmark lawsuit on “conversion therapy,” wrote that there is nothing therapeutic or scientific about the widely discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Conversion therapy systemically preys on the most vulnerable and self-loathing people, exacts monetary profit from them, and leads them further away from the help and emotional support they need,” Ferguson wrote.

Many others said they know someone who’d been exposed to “conversion therapy."

Representatives of the Utah Pride Center and Transgender Education Advocates of Utah wrote in support of the rule, as did the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contends the drafted rule could stifle therapeutic conversations about faith and sexuality, the diocese expressed no such concern.

“We see nothing in the rule that would prohibit therapists from discussing a client’s moral or religious beliefs or practices, or requires a therapist to contradict such beliefs or practices,” wrote Jean Hill, director of life, justice and peace for the diocese. “The rule’s specific protection for methods or practices that address an ‘individual’s unlawful conduct or unsafe sexual practices’ gives us assurance nothing in the rule would lead a therapist to encourage a minor to engage in illegal or unsafe sexual practices of any nature, regardless of sexual orientation.”

The Rev. Russell Butler, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, also urged the state to approve the ban.

“The stigma associated with being LGBTQ often created by groups in society, including therapists and religious groups, has caused disproportionately high rates of suicide, attempted suicide, depression, rejection, and isolation amongst LGBTQ and questioning individuals,” Butler wrote. “We must do everything as a society to protect the physical and psychological well-being of minors, especially LGBTQ youth.”

A review by The Salt Lake Tribune found 110 comments opposing the proposed rule, while another four individuals advocated for changes to the language. Some of the rule opponents were affiliated with socially conservative groups or viewed the proposed ban as infringing on their parental rights.

“The proposed language change would take away options for youth and make them feel forced to stay gay or lesbian if they don’t want to,” one parent wrote.

Another voiced outrage that the state might “sacrifice these youth for the sake of political correctness.”

The proposed rules as drafted 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, but LGBTQ advocates in Utah have so far been stymied in their attempts to get a statutory restriction passed by the Legislature.

So earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert directed the state’s regulators to come up with rules for “conversion therapy” based on the best available science. The state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing held a public hearing on the proposed rule and collected the roughly 2,460 comments on it, but so far has not given it final approval.

The agency could take the rule back to any of its licensing boards if it believes the public input warrants further review, according to a spokeswoman.

But Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he’s confident the state will soon have a ban on “conversion therapy," adding that he’s not surprised the public comments were overwhelmingly in favor of the change.

“Utahns are a kind, generous people,” he said Tuesday. “And they recognize injustice, and they recognize when someone’s been harmed. ... I think Utahns have seen the dangers of ‘conversion therapy’ and are standing on the right side of history.”

Tribune reporters Kathy Stephenson, Sean P. Means and Kelly Cannon and news editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.