Why LGBTQ advocates support clarifying Utah’s ban on conversion therapy

“We are protecting our kids, and most importantly, we are sending the message to LGBTQ kids throughout the state of Utah that they are not broken,” one father told lawmakers.

Lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates reached a compromise Monday on a bill addressing conversion therapy in Utah, defusing what could be a contentious debate on the issue.

Utah banned conversion therapy in 2020. A Division of Professional Licensing rule now prohibits therapists and counselors from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor.

The initial version of HB228 from North Logan Republican Rep. Mike Petersen weakened that prohibition narrowing the definition of conversion therapy and exempting written or verbal communication from the ban.

“Imagine a 13-year-old girl. She’s experiencing body changes. She’s got all kinds of social pressures. She’s feeling confused and unsure about her gender. She wants to have an open and honest conversation, but she can’t because her therapist knows that by rule, they’re prohibited from doing anything but affirming the young girl’s idea she may be a boy,” Petersen said.

Petersen said Monday during a House committee hearing on the bill the current rule governing conversion therapy was so restrictive it was hindering mental health professionals.

“Under the current rule, we’ve been talking with many counselors who have either restricted their practice or they no longer want to deal with minor patients. Here we are at a time in our state’s history where we are concerned about the problems kids are going through and this is the time we need to make sure that they feel free to talk,” Petersen added.

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He said Monday that he made further changes to his proposal following discussions with advocates from the LGBTQ community who worried his initial proposal provided a way to get around the state’s ban on conversion therapy.

The updated legislation will allow mental health professionals to provide care in a “neutral” way to assist a minor who is seeking information about sexual orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapy remains outlawed in Utah.

Mike Ostermiller, whose daughter is gay, said the changes were able to “thread the needle” between allowing therapists to help patients while protecting the rights of LGBTQ residents.

“We are protecting our kids, and most importantly, we are sending the message to LGBTQ kids throughout the state of Utah that they are not broken. That they’re seen. That they’re understood and they do not need to be repaired, fixed, converted or restored in any way,” Ostermiller said.

Equality Utah endorsed Petersen’s substitute bill, thanking the lawmaker for being willing to find a compromise.

“We’ve had important dialogue and have shared our concerns openly,” the organization said in a statement. “The 2nd sub continues to prohibit the very dangerous practice of conversion therapy for minors while providing greater clarification for Utah therapists, and accordingly, we support the advancement of HB228 as amended.”

The House Business and Labor committee unanimously recommended Petersen’s bill on Monday afternoon, sending it to the full House.