The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pressuring state regulators to punt a proposed ban on “conversion therapy” for minors back to Utah lawmakers, or change it so that therapists can keep counseling young clients about putting religious convictions over sexual identity.
Advocates and state mental health groups say the change under consideration by the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing would simply prohibit a widely discredited practice that leaves gay or transgender youths with deep emotional and psychological scars. It would not, they say, muzzle mental health professionals who are trying to help children and teens navigate complex issues of faith and identity.
And, given the LDS Church’s stance on gender and sexuality, they regard with suspicion the changes it is pushing state regulators to make.
“The church has a certain view about what is right and good with respect to gender and sexuality, and so it’s really hard for me to believe that amendments such as these would not be interpreted by some clinicians as license to continue pushing their particular version of health and well-being on vulnerable youth,” said Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah.
The Utah Psychological Association also opposes the church’s suggested rule alterations, saying that they are inconsistent with peer-reviewed science and in violation of the American Psychological Association’s ethics code. The “conversion therapy” ban under consideration would not infringe on self-determination, parental rights or religious freedoms, wrote Nanci Klein, the association’s director of professional affairs.
“The rule would do nothing more than regulate the practice of mental health therapy by prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from subjecting minors to an unnecessary, ineffective, and life-threatening practice,” Klein wrote in an email.
The proposed rules as drafted would prohibit state-licensed mental health professionals from trying to turn a gay child straight or alter a minor’s gender identity. Broadly condemned by mental health and medical professionals, “conversion therapy” has already been banned in 18 other states, but LGBTQ advocates in Utah have so far been stymied in their attempts to get a statutory restriction passed in the GOP-dominated Legislature, where nearly nine in 10 members are Latter-day Saints.
So Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he hopes state regulators don’t comply with the church’s request to kick the issue back to lawmakers.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen," he said, “but I hope science prevails over politics.”
The church released its opposition to the rule, as written, in a short news release Tuesday. Its Family Services, which offers mental health and other counseling, submitted a more formal statement to state officials expounding on concerns that the rule as drafted is too broad and would fail to protect religious beliefs.
About 250 therapists with Family Services work with 28,000 clients in Utah each year, the network’s letter states. Seeing one of these therapists requires a referral from a congregational leader (a bishop or branch president), a stake president (a regional leader) or a mission president, and the typical client is looking for counseling that “respects and accounts for their religious identity and personal faith goals.”
Family Services has prohibited therapies seeking to change sexual orientation and supports “protecting children and youth from abusive conversion therapy practices," according to the correspondence. However, the lengthy letter enumerates a number of objections to the current proposal’s wording, including language crafted to protect transgender youths from conversion techniques.
The church expresses concern that the drafted rule would prevent therapists from encouraging young people to adopt a “wait-and-see approach” before pursuing gender transition. The letter also takes issue with proposed language restricting mental health professionals from trying to change “presentation and behaviors" expressing aspects of gender.
“[I]t is easy to imagine numerous dysfunctional presentations and behaviors that ‘express aspects of gender,’ such as extremes in dress, grooming, language and sexuality,” states the letter, addressed to a DOPL representative.
For instance, discussing a topic such as “toxic masculinity” might be off-limits for a therapist, the church posits.
To a lesser degree, the church outlined the same problem with the proposed wording on sexual orientation, arguing that it is overly broad and could mute conversations about pornography addiction, abstinence and integrating religious values with other aspects of life.
Major medical and mental health groups in the state spoke in favor of the proposed rule during a lengthy public hearing last month, saying restricting “conversion therapy” could save lives by protecting youths from a practice linked to suicide and depression.
Research shows more than 60% of LGBT youths who go through “conversion therapy” attempt suicide, Klein noted.
But some therapists say they can see where the church is coming from.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a therapist with Wasatch Family Therapy who is a Latter-day Saint, said she can appreciate the church’s concerns but does not share them herself. The rule language, in her view, would not stifle conversations with a teen who’s addicted to gay pornography or other sex-related issues.
“The problem isn’t that he’s looking at gay pornography. It’s that he is looking at pornography many hours a day,” said Hanks, who’s also an assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University. “And you treat that behavior. It has nothing to do with whether it’s gay or straight.”
David Matheson, a former conversion therapist who recently came out as gay, said he also has problems with the ban now under consideration. The current language fails to reflect the complexities of sexual fluidity and gender identity, he said, and would act as a blunt instrument where nuance is needed.
“There’s a lawyer now sitting in the therapist’s office, and he doesn’t belong there,” said Matheson, who still works as a therapist but has disavowed his past conversion efforts.
He did, however, explain that he disagrees with the church’s doctrines and policies on LGBTQ people, which he called “inhumane.”
Church President Russell M. Nelson recently reaffirmed the faith’s opposition to gay marriage. And earlier this month, his first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, Dallin H. Oaks, declared that “binary creation is essential to the plan of salvation,” and that people are defined by “biological sex at birth."
Diamond said these positions throw into question the church’s credibility on the topic of “conversion therapy.” And while the church’s letter condemns conversion tactics using electric shock and nausea, researchers have found the techniques that cause most harm to gay youths involve prayer, she said.
“Because you’re asking God to help you. And then nothing happens, and you feel like, ‘Oh, God has forsaken me,’” she said. “So when we think about the harm of conversion therapy, we have to remember that harm doesn’t just come from having somebody shock you. Harm comes from receiving and internalizing the message that there is something fundamentally wrong about you.”
Therapists who follow the ethical guidelines for their profession have no reason to fear that the proposed DOPL rule will curtail their freedom during counseling sessions, she said.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum and an ardent opponent of the current proposal, disagrees and says the measure would infringe on both parental and personal rights. Teens who are questioning their sexual or gender identities should have access to therapy that conforms with their religious beliefs, she said.
“It’s a parent’s right for their children and our right as individuals," she said, “to be able to express ourselves and get the therapy that we want.”
Matheson argues that gender dysphoria — extreme discomfort because of a discrepancy between people’s assigned gender and the one they identify with — subsides for many people who experience it in childhood and that therapists should be allowed to proceed with caution with these clients.
“Therapies that encourage transitioning may be enforcing a lifelong change on a childhood issue — somewhat like forcing a child to grow up to be an astronaut because that’s what they wanted to be when they were 7,” Matheson wrote in an email.
Diamond, on the other hand, says this “wait-and-see” approach would not fall under the “conversion therapy” ban and is standard therapeutic practice.
“It’s not like the average therapist is encouraging children ... to identify as trans as early as possible,” she said. “This field is extraordinarily cautious, because we’re aware of how complicated development is.”
Sue Robbins, board chairwoman for Transgender Advocates of Utah, said hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgeries are typically done later in life, and minors more often use hormone blockers to put a pause on puberty. The blockers give young people time to work through their feelings on gender identity, she said.
While the church’s letter speaks about the “likelihood that gender confusion or dysphoria” in children will fade over time, Robbins said only a tiny percentage of people who transition pursue a reversal — and those few often do so because of discrimination rather than a change of feeling.
"It's all about going back into the closet," Robbins said.
The proposed changes suggested by the church would leave children vulnerable to nonaffirming therapy based on “junk science,” Robbins said.
The proposed DOPL rule came at the request of Gov. Gary Herbert, who asked the state to enact regulations for conversion therapy based on the “best available science.” His request followed the collapse of a legislative attempt to ban the practice for minors, a measure sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, who has also supported Herbert’s regulatory approach.
LGBTQ advocates had negotiated the legislation with the church’s attorneys and public affairs office and landed on language that representatives of the Utah-based faith agreed not to oppose, Williams said. He said the proposed rule would have the same effect as the legislation negotiated with the church, and he’s not sure why Family Services now objects.
“I was surprised and disappointed to see a 26-page rebuttal of what we had worked so hard on,” he said.
DOPL denied a request for an interview, but officials have said the rule could take effect Tuesday at the earliest. However, the agency could also take the rule back to any of its licensing boards if it believes public input warrants further review, according to an agency spokeswoman. Public notice would be required if the agency changes the proposed language.