Tribune Editorial: Utah should ban conversion therapy, no matter what the LDS Church says

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Conversion Therapy," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

Psychotherapy is a science.

Not, perhaps, the most exact and clear-cut of all the sciences. But it is nevertheless a science, and its practice and practitioners must be regulated through that lens.

Conversion therapy, a sweet name for a form of emotional abuse that has damaged — and, in some cases, ended — the lives of some of our most vulnerable young people, is not science.

Across the nation, people who study and supervise the practice of psychiatry and psychology have determined that any effort to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person is generally fruitless and often damaging. Damaging up to and including an increased likelihood of suicide.

The practice has been called out by professional organizations and the appropriate authorities around the country and its practice on minors is now banned in 18 states.

For a moment there, it looked like Utah was well on the way to becoming the 19th state to take this necessary step.

A bill to do so was moving through the last session of the Utah Legislature, having won the support of members of both parties, of groups that support LGBTQ people and the apparent acquiescence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the process was hijacked by some far-right lawmakers and came to nothing.

Then Gov. Gary Herbert made the highly reasonable suggestion that perhaps the issue wasn’t really a legislative matter anyway. That it should be referred to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, which regulates, among other things, the practice of mental health treatment around here.

The division took the task seriously, drafted a rule, held hearings and opened a public comment period, which closed Tuesday.

Which is when the LDS Church officially came out with a statement opposing the proposed ban on conversion therapy. The proposal, said the church, is “is ambiguous in key areas and overreaches in others.”

To which one can only ask: What part of “no” don’t you understand?

The evil of using the tools and guise of mental health counseling in an attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of any human being is not ambiguous. Banning it for minors in all cases does not overreach.

The church statement says: “The Church hopes that those who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria find compassion and understanding from family members, Church leaders and members, and professional counselors. The Church denounces any abusive professional practice or treatment.”

That can only be read as an expression of the belief that “same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria” are illnesses or maladies that can be treated and cured. That is not true, no matter how many officials of how many religious groups say it is.

The division should follow through on its proposal and ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors in Utah. Not only will it be sparing many young people untold pain, it would also be a step in protecting the LDS Church from itself.

The church already bears the scars of its continuing efforts to belittle and demean LGBTQ people and relationships. From its support of Proposition 8 in California to its continued opposition to full rights for same-sex couples, the church that is a pillar of Utah culture and society continues to damage itself almost every time the issue comes up.

By waiting until the final hour to take a stand on the proposed ban, church leaders acted without transparency and in an attempt to cut off further debate. And it seeks to stand in the way of a significant effort to improve the practice of mental health services in a state that is already at the bottom of the stack in such services, and where youth suicide is endemic.

Herbert had no direct reply to the church’s position, other than to say that public participation in such decisions is a good thing. Which it is.

But the governor’s original charge to the professional licensing division should stand. Conversion therapy for minors should — must — be banned.