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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.