Equality Utah aims to ban gay conversion therapy of minors as new research shows harm such programs can do

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caitlin Ryan speaks on the critical role of family support in preventing suicide and promoting well-being for LGBT youths at Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

This weekend, “Boy Erased” hit the big screen, showcasing the efforts of a Christian therapist to convince young gays that their sexual orientation is a choice and that they can rid themselves of it with prayer and devotion to Jesus.

If LGBT advocates in Utah have their way, such efforts to change a minor’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual — commonly called “conversion therapy” — will become illegal in the Beehive State.

A just-published survey provides supporting evidence of the need.

“We have a piece of legislation on this that we’ve drafted,” Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said this week, “and it includes concerns about suicide of gay youths.”

Utah then would join more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia in outlawing conversion therapy for minors.

Williams believes the time is ripe for such a ban in Utah.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, listens as Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams testifies Feb. 7, 2018, at the Capitol.

After all, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has disavowed past therapies to change orientation and has launched its own efforts to prevent suicide.

The American Psychological Association has declared it not only impossible but also unethical to try changing sexual orientation. A New Jersey court declared in 2015 that such strategies were “unsuccessful” and constituted false advertising.

The independent Mormon Mental Health Association opposes any therapies "which have been developed to change, alter or reduce sexual orientation."

Clinical studies have linked these therapies, the association says, with "increased rates of clinical depression, suicide, anxiety, low self-esteem, difficulty sustaining relationships and sexual dysfunction."

Now, yet another researcher has come to the same conclusion.

What the evidence shows

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Caitlin Ryan speaks on the critical role of family support in preventing suicide and promoting well-being for LGBT youths on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

Longtime California researcher Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, has published what she says is the first look at the impact of parents and religious leaders who try to change a child’s LGBT identity.

Such adults “may be motivated by attempts to ‘protect’ their children,” Ryan said in a release, but “these rejecting behaviors instead undermine an LGBT child’s sense of self-worth, contribute to self-destructive behaviors that significantly increase risk and inhibit self-care, which includes constricting their ability to make a living.”

This offers “even more dramatic evidence of the lasting personal and social cost of subjecting young people to so-called ‘change’ or ‘conversion’ therapies,” Ryan said. “Prior studies with adults have shown how harmful these practices are. Our study shows the central role that parents play.”

This is hardly a new approach for Ryan, who has produced several pamphlets on how families from specific religious groups can respond to their LGBT children.

In Ryan’s most recent study, she wanted to know the impact on LGBT young people when their parents or religious leaders tried to switch their orientation. She recruited 245 participants who self-identified as LGBT from bars, clubs and community agencies that serve this population in the Bay Area.

The survey asked an array of questions to measure the effect of these change therapies.

From this, Ryan concluded that the rates of attempted suicide among those whose parents had pushed for them to change were more than double (48 percent) the rate of LGBT young adults who reported no conversion experiences (22 percent). For those who reported both home-based efforts by parents and intervention efforts by therapists and religious leaders, the attempted suicide rate tripled (63 percent).

On top of that, for this LGBT population, high levels of depression more than doubled (33 percent) compared with those who reported no conversion experiences (16 percent). For those who reported both parental and external pressure by religious leaders and therapists to change sexual orientation, depression more than tripled (52 percent).

This latest study shows “how deeply rooted efforts are to change LGBT youth, how great the personal cost and how vital our services are to nurture their positive development — just as they are,” Stephenie Larsen, CEO of Encircle, an LGBT family and youth resource center in Provo, said in the release. “Engaging families is not only important but lifesaving, particularly here in Utah.”

Ryan’s results are “revelatory,” Williams said, and they parallel conclusions from Equality Utah’s surveys.

Can people change?

Rich Wyler is the founder and director of Brothers Road, a support group for LGBT men who wish to link their sexual identity with their religious ideals.

His group, formerly called People Can Change, does not oppose these legislative efforts.

“We are about self-acceptance and doing the underlying emotional work to live in accordance with your values,” Wyler said from his home in Virginia. “Some people experience what they would call diminished same-sex attraction, while others not so much.”

The choice between “a gay identity and lifestyle against a religion’s just-don’t-talk-about-it approach” is, Wyler said, “a false dichotomy.”

He wouldn’t oppose legislation prohibiting minors from being exposed to “conversion therapy” — a term he argues was invented by the media and activist therapists — because he “would never support a teenager being forced into any kind of therapy with an outcome they don’t want,” the life coach said. “I believe in client self-determination.”

But Wyler believes gays should have the choice of “either embracing a gay identity or exploring their heterosexual potential.”

The latter is what he wanted for himself, he said, so he launched his nationwide network, with weekend workshops known as Journey Into Manhood, to serve men who wanted the same thing.

“I knew I wanted to distance myself from my homosexual attractions,” Wyler said. “Today, some say that’s unethical, which in itself is shaming.”

Ryan acknowledges that her study excluded “persons who are dissatisfied with their LGBT identity, or persons who had identified as LGBT during adolescence but not at the time of the study … [as well as ] young people whose sexual orientation may be more fluid (e.g., sexual orientation in adolescence not consistent with sexual orientation in young adulthood).”

Words matter

Williams has consulted on the bill’s wording with several groups, including the Reconciliation and Growth Project that has brought together therapists and activists from opposing sides — including Ty Mansfield and Lee Beckstead — to agree on “best practices.”

“We advocate moving beyond terminology such as ‘reparative,’ ‘conversion,’ ‘sexual-orientation change efforts,’ and ‘affirmative’ therapies because they fuel adversarial tensions and foster misunderstanding,” the Reconciliation and Growth Project wrote in a recent statement. “Instead, we favor language that focuses on reducing the distress associated with sexual and gender diversity."

Mansfield, a Provo-based family therapist, added his hope that “any such laws [would include language that would also make it illegal to try to change the religious faith, identity or commitments of clients, and that application of ethical concerns is broadened to address potential ethical violations of therapists across the ideological spectrum of therapeutic perspectives.”

Beckstead, who once testified about the harms of providers promoting their ability to change clients’ sexual orientation, added his advice for these laws: “Don’t promise or try to change someone’s sexual or gender diversity or faith; but instead use approaches that encourage self-determination and health for the individual.”

Will it work?

Williams is optimistic about the chances of passing his bill, though he hasn’t yet secured a legislative sponsor.

After all, he points out, Utah’s predominant faith has issued two clear statements against change efforts in recent years. One was on its website mormonandgay.org, which calls some tactics “unethical.” The other was a statement by spokesman Eric Hawkins, saying the church condemns any “abusive practices.”

“There has been a clear shift since 2015,” Williams said. “There are promising signs for us.”

Of course, the proposed Utah legislation would restrict only state-licensed therapists. It would not apply to clergy, he said, or to life coaches, who are fairly common in the Beehive State.

It is modeled after a similar bill in Nevada, which was signed by a Republican governor.

There is no reason, Williams said, for change efforts “to continue in our state.”