Utah lawmakers explore repealing state ban on conversion therapy for minors

Equality Utah Director Troy Williams said he will “vehemently oppose any efforts” to revive the discredited practice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, talks about a bill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 25, 2022. He brought up the possibility of repealing the state's ban on conversion therapy during an interim hearing on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.

State lawmakers this week discussed the possibility of repealing Utah’s ban on conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, causing alarm among advocates and community members.

The ban went into place through a January 2020 administrative rule adopted by state licensing officials, after then-Gov. Gary Herbert ordered them to evaluate the therapy.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said he is concerned about how the rule came to exist, so he brought the issue forward to discuss Thursday during an interim meeting with the committee that oversees state government regulations. He also suggested it wasn’t necessary to ban the therapy.

“There are past medical procedures that have been disfavored, and they drop out naturally,” Brammer said, mentioning bloodletting as a practice that is no longer used but was never outlawed in the state. “Why do we treat this differently?”

During the discussion, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, questioned whether the rule should be repealed, allowing individual therapists to decide what they want to practice.

Conversion therapy is when a therapist or counselor attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a client; in the past that has included administering electric shocks to a patient to try to make them straight. Every major medical and mental health organization in the country opposes it, notes Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah.

Under Utah’s rule, any licensed therapist in the state who conducts that therapy with patients under 18 can face sanctions for unprofessional conduct.

Now-Gov. Spencer Cox spoke in favor of banning conversion therapy when he was lieutenant governor under Herbert. On Thursday, during his monthly news conference, he said he’ll be watching “very closely” as the process moves forward.

Historic practices with conversion therapy, he added, have been “incredibly damaging.” And he doesn’t want to see those return to the state.

Casey Pick with the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, called the potential revival in Utah “absurd.” Williams, with Equality Utah, added: “We vehemently oppose any efforts to resuscitate this dangerous and ineffective treatment for Utah youth.”

And Taryn Aiken-Hiatt, the Utah and Nevada area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said on Twitter that she fears bringing back the discredited practice will cause harm to young queer people.

Utah’s rule includes an exception for clergy or religious counselors, which came after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints initially pushed against the effort to ban the the therapy, but agreed to support it with the exemption.

But on Thursday, legislators questioned whether Herbert had the authority to instruct the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, which oversees licenses to practice medicine in the state, to implement it.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Gov. Gary Herbert, left, and Gov. Spencer Cox give remarks on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Originally, in the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers had worked on a bill to ban conversion therapy. It was never passed, collapsing after several conservative leaders weakened it. The rule that later went into effect from DOPL, though, largely mirrored their language.

Brammer and Bramble both said during the hearing Thursday that they believe the action should have been allowed to come from the legislative branch, which is supposed to make law. And while the executive branch has been granted some rule-making authority, they say Herbert overstepped.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, added: “Was it appropriate? I would say no. He was well aware that this was something the Legislature had intended to look at.”

He continued: “The reason I was miffed by what the governor did is, he was within his legal rights. … But he deliberately did it because he didn’t want the circus of what it would be developing that type of policy up here at the Legislature.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned if bringing up the policy now was for no other reason than “criticizing the governor for making a policy decision.” She argued the ban is sound and should be left alone.

But while Anderegg said he supports 90% of the rule and thinks conversion therapy should be banned in the state, he wonders if the rule isn’t clear enough and if there’s some possibility to open up having talk therapy for LGBTQ clients who want to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.

He does not want to bring back shock therapy, which he called “absolutely barbaric” and “stupid.”

Brammer said he feels the rule as it stands is vague, and said he’s heard from several therapists who don’t know what they can or can’t do when working with LGBTQ clients. Can they talk about their gender identity? Or is that topic off limits?

He said many have become scared or chilled by the rule. He thinks it should go back to lawmakers to write out more clearly. Anderegg also supported a repeal but said he’d like to see something else put in place before going down that path.

Brammer also sees it as a free speech issue; some courts in other states have recently ruled in that way, saying that conversion therapy cannot be regulated because it is considered speech.

The committee took no action Thursday. But the topic is likely to come up during the next legislative session.

Those in favor of conversion therapy

When the ban was first instituted, Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said she was confident lawmakers would attempt to alter or overturn it shortly. She sat in the committee room Thursday, shaking her head in agreement as legislators raised points against the rule.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka on Friday, March 25, 2022.

Geoffrey Heath, an attorney with the conservative Family Development Action Coalition, also spoke against the rule, telling lawmakers that he finds it “hostile to religious beliefs of minor patients.” Some who are Latter-day Saints, he said, may believe they were not born LGBTQ and it was something they learned; those patients may want to change their thoughts through therapy, and he feels they should be allowed to do so.

He was joined by marriage and family therapist Jeff Bennion, who also spoke against it. “Sexual and gender minorities are not getting care,” he added.

Some clients, he said, want to change their sexual orientation and feel blocked from doing so. He questioned why therapists can’t provide that kind of therapy when doctors are allowed to provide hormone blockers in the state for transgender youth who don’t want to go through puberty.

“Talk therapy doesn’t result in permanent infertility,” he said.

DOPL Director Mark Steinagel talked briefly about the process for developing the rule, which he said involved multiple opportunities for public input, with multiple hearings and thousands of comments.

“There were a lot of people involved in the process,” he said. “We haven’t received any complaints.”

Speaking against conversion therapy

Marina Lowe, the policy director for Equality Utah, said that the science on conversion therapy causing harm supports keeping the ban in place, including for talk therapy “which continues to do harm to LGBTQ youth.” Parents may force their kids to undergo such therapy, causing them extreme distress, she said.

“Conversion therapy is a life-threatening practice,” Lowe added.

It is a discredited practice in all forms, with some studies pointing that it can lead to depression, substance abuse and suicide, Lowe said. Before Utah, 18 other states had banned it.

But Brammer challenged that, saying that the American Psychological Association, one of the organizations opposed to conversion therapy, “once considered being LGBTQ to be a mental health problem.”

A lot has changed in the last few years, but none of the research is concrete, he said. Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, agreed with him, saying there isn’t only one way to solve cancer or perform a surgery. It’s not “settled science,” he said, and it “stifles innovation.”

Brammer challenged Lowe’s legal analysis on several points, too, asking if doctors could advise a patient to go out of state for an abortion in a state where it’s illegal. Does that mean a Utah therapist could recommend that a client get conversion therapy somewhere it’s not banned?

Lowe said the rule only bans providing the actual treatment of conversion therapy; she said recommendations could still happen.

She also noted that the ban is about safety and there are similar prohibitions on therapists, such as against sexually propositioning a client.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, compared it to a ban in Utah that she helped pass outlawing genital mutilation of minors.

“This is about children,” she said. “There has to be some safety measures there.”

Adults, she and others noted, are free to choose to do conversion therapy if they want.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) 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.

The Utah Pride Center said in a statement that it “stands firmly resolved that conversion therapy is an abusive and traumatic practice.” It called the therapy antiquated and pleaded with lawmakers not to repeal the ban.

Williams with Equality Utah said he’s disappointed that anyone would consider reviving the practice for youth. He worked with lawmakers, DOPL and the governor on the rule that passed in 2020.

“But it is clear that there is a desire from some lawmakers to continue to debate and revisit the issue,” he said.

What’s next

Discussing the ban Thursday, Cox said: “Of course, we’ve been supportive and continue to be supportive of that rule.”

He added that he feels it’s appropriate for the Legislature to review rules from time to time; and Cox has also set up his own process for his administration to do that.

“We will engage with the Legislature if it turns out this is something they want to do,” he said.

Sue Robbins, a member of the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah, said it’s shaping up to be a “rough year” for members of the LGBTQ community in Utah with laws and legislation.

The state had originally banned transgender girl athletes competing in high school sports on girls teams; a judge has issued an injunction, stopping that from being enforced while a lawsuit moves through court. But with the potential for conversion therapy to be revived, as well as the Utah GOP wanting to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth, she said, it feels like “the community is under attack.”

She’s worried about what might come next.