Poll: 57% of Utahns support banning ‘conversion therapy’ for minors

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Justin Utley, left, and Nathan Dalley, both survivors of conversion therapy, embrace after Dalley spoke on his painful and harmful experiences that he considered the worst days of his life. Equality Utah held a press conference at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, to recognize Utah becoming the 19th state in the nation to enact a ban on conversion therapy for minors. At right is Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, was the sponsor of the bill that helped prohibit conversion therapy.

Most Utahns seem to stand behind a new ban on “conversion therapy” for minors, a welcome sign to LGBTQ advocates who hope other conservative states are on the verge of prohibiting the discredited practice.

About 57% of adults in the state support the state’s efforts to stop therapists and other licensed mental health professionals from attempts to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a recent poll conducted by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University. Approval for a conversion ban transcends political party — self-identified Republicans and Democrats expressed equal levels of support — buttressing claims that the issue is not a partisan one.

Accordingly, LGBTQ advocates are seeing a growing willingness to consider bans in red states such as Oklahoma and Kentucky.

“Utah opened the door to conversation,” said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youths. “It’s a good time to be working in the campaign to end conversion therapy, because this is a watershed moment.”

A bill banning conversion therapy for minors in Kentucky has drawn unprecedented levels of bipartisan support in that state’s Legislature this year, Brinton said. In Oklahoma, a legislative committee this past week voted favorably on banning the practice for anyone younger than 18.

Troy Williams, who helped lead the fight to make the Utah the 19th state to establish a conversion ban, said lawmakers from Idaho, Arizona, Kentucky and Iowa have reached out to his group, Equality Utah, for help in advancing their own prohibitions.

“Everyone in red states is now saying, ‘If Utah can do it, so can we!’” Williams wrote in a text message. “We are hopeful that Utah will again inspire the rest of the country.”

The Beehive State’s path to banning conversion did not follow a straight line. A pair of Republican lawmakers last year ran legislation that had support from mental health groups and LGBTQ advocates and was unopposed by the state’s predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But momentum behind the bill evaporated when a committee controlled by socially conservative lawmakers weakened it so drastically that its sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, could no longer support it.

Later that year, Gov. Gary Herbert took a different tack by directing state regulators to craft professional regulations based on the best available science on conversion therapy. This effort, too, saw some stops and starts, with the LDS Church expressing opposition to an initial draft of the rule.

Ultimately, Herbert, state officials, advocates and church representatives coalesced around language that was virtually identical to Hall’s legislation, and the agreed-upon ban took effect last month.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, center, holds a press conference at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, to recognize Utah becoming the 19th state in the nation to enact a ban on conversion therapy for minors.

Mental health groups, gay rights advocates and suicide prevention organizations predict the new restrictions will save lives by sending a message of acceptance to LGBTQ children and ending practices that can leave youths with lasting emotional and psychological damage.

A national survey led by The Trevor Project found that two in three LGBTQ young people reported those who had tried to change their sexual orientation or gender identity and that youths exposed to conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide. A recent academic study showed transgender individuals were more than four times as likely to attempt suicide if they’d experienced conversion therapy during childhood.

People are increasingly viewing conversion bans as a public health measure rather than through a partisan lens, advocates say, adding that The Tribune poll results underscore the point.

“We are grateful that a majority of Utahns supported our efforts to protect youth from conversion therapy,” Williams said. “As more people learn about the hazards of this dubious practice, I have no doubt support will continue to grow.”

Hall, R-West Valley City, said Utah is “certainly the most conservative state” that has enacted a conversion ban to date but that he’s not sure how its example will impact conversations elsewhere. Utah is singular in imposing a comprehensive ban via the administrative rule-making process, said Brinton, adding that the standard approach is to pass it legislatively.

“The campaign that I lead is called ’50 bills in 50 states,' ” Brinton continued. “It is kind of funny because we’re trying to figure out how to rename it to, ’49 states and a regulation.' "

Brinton said state legislators in Utah and elsewhere do seem slower to embrace conversion bans than the public at large.

In Utah, 57% favored such prohibitions, while 31% indicated opposition and 12% said they didn’t know, according to the recent Tribune survey. The poll surveyed 500 Utahns from Jan. 18 to Jan. 22 over landlines and cellphones and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Support for conversion bans built steadily as the age of the respondent decreased, with 18-to 34-year-olds backing the restrictions by 65%, the survey showed.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) 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.

Beatrice Cardwell, a South Ogden resident who participated in The Tribune’s poll, called attempts to alter a child’s sexual identity “a bag of worms.”

“That’s something that should be left to when you’re older, and you can make your own decisions,” she said.

And although Oliver Riddle generally opposes government intervention, he said officials should step in at times on behalf of children.

“The government does have a role when it comes to an abusive behavior or something that’s going to damage a child,” said the Cedar City resident, who was also part of The Tribune survey.

While Williams said the governor and House and Senate leaders have indicated they’re satisfied by Utah’s existing ban, there has been speculation that hard-line conservative lawmakers might try to unravel or dilute the regulations at some point. Conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka, who vociferously opposed the ban now in place, said she doesn’t anticipate any such efforts this legislative session but predicted they might surface next year or beyond.

Her group, the Utah Eagle Forum, will instead be focusing its energy on a bill to prevent transgender youths from pursuing hormone therapy or surgery until they reach adulthood, she said. That legislation, which Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, has agreed to sponsor, has not yet been released publicly.

Ruzicka attributed The Tribune poll’s findings to a lack of information about the conversion therapy ban that recently took effect. Many people associate conversion therapy with methods involving electrical shock or that induce nausea in a client, she said.

“They banned all that, but then, that’s only a little of it,” Ruzicka said. “I think if they knew that they had banned any kind of therapy that wasn’t affirming, I think those numbers would be different.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gayle Ruzicka, political activist and leader of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, left, waits her turn to speak as Lisa Tensmeyer, Director of Clinical Services at Flourish Counseling speaks in support of a proposed ban on conversion therapy during a public hearing before state regulators in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

LGBTQ advocates say aversion techniques involving nausea or physical discomfort are largely obsolete and that most current conversion methods involve talk therapy. As Utah officials have weighed a ban, numerous individuals have stepped forward with stories about therapists who urged them to dress or speak differently as a way to change their sexual orientation or who tried to link their same-sex attractions to past trauma — even if the client hadn’t experienced any.

The ban currently in place defines conversion therapy as a practice that “seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity” of a patient, including attempts to “change, eliminate, or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions, or feelings” related to a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Advocates say it would not have a chilling effect on interactions between mental health professionals and their clients, pointing out that the rule allows therapy that is “neutral with respect to sexual orientation or gender identity."

A state-licensed mental health worker who violates these regulations could be found guilty of unprofessional conduct and would be liable for a range of sanctions, including loss of license.