Utah therapists move forward after ‘conversion therapy’ ban

(Tribune file photo) Latter-day Saints with the support group Affirmation march during the Pride Parade in 2016.

Murray • Seven therapists — three women and four men — sit around a table and debate the language of a joint statement. They stop on each phrase, clause, set of initials, and even comma, determined to get it right.

Should they use SSA (which stands for same-sex attracted) or LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) or is that redundant? Should they mention faith? Is their work only about minors? Where is family in the equation? And on and on. They vote on each change or addition before moving on.

Clearly, words matter to this group. A lot.

They are partners in an unusual experiment known as the Reconciliation and Growth Project, which has brought together an equal number of professional therapists on either side of a continuum (some would say, chasm) of beliefs about how best to serve their clients on such complex questions.

These counselors continue to disagree on many issues, but they have reached consensus on two simple therapeutic principles: “Do no harm” and “patient self-determination.”

Therapists across the ideological continuum, from liberal to conservative practitioners, they agree, can cause harm by advocating a predetermined outcome.

“There is not ‘conversion therapy’ or’ affirmative therapy,’” says Ty Mansfield, co-founder of North Star, an LGBTQ support community for believing Latter-day Saints. “There is just good therapy.”

But it has taken years of discussions to get here.

Engaging, not suing, the enemy

Jim Struve, clinical social worker and therapist, moved to Salt Lake City in 2003 and opened up a private practice. Within a year, he had helped found the LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah, assembling a network of mental health providers and students in clinical training.

“We were trying to be interdisciplinary and open to all therapists, gay or straight,” Struve recalls. “We wanted to create a kind of ‘chamber of commerce’ for therapists to work on these issues.”

In late 2010 or early 2011, some of the guild leaders decided they needed to address the problems of so-called reparative therapy, which aimed to repair or eliminate same-sex attraction.

The activists concluded the best thing to do was sue some practitioners for consumer fraud, which they did successfully in Ferguson vs. JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing).

A New Jersey jury determined in June 2015 that such reparative or conversion strategies were "unsuccessful" and constituted false advertising.

As the trial was wending toward its conclusion, however, Struve and Lee Beckstead, another therapist who testified against conversion therapy methods and assumptions, decided on a friendlier, less legalistic approach.

Beckstead had written extensively about the dangers of such "change efforts," pushed the American Psychological Association to condemn them, and was associated with the out-and-proud approach as the healthiest way to be gay.

He was convinced that some of the same-sex-attracted LDS faithful — trying to remain celibate or to alter their orientation — hated him.

Still, in March 2013, Beckstead and Struve reached out to these opposing therapists, especially those serving clients in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who were trying to balance their faith and their attractions.

The Utah-based faith teaches that being LGBTQ+ is not a sin, just acting on those attractions is.

“We began to slow down, thinking engagement would be better,” Struve says, “than continuing the battle.”

They created the Reconciliation group with four therapists on each side, including one employed by the LDS Church (originally Justin McPheters, now Rebecca Taylor, both of whom work as therapists for the faith’s Family Services). They began meeting every other week.

They listened to one another’s views and worked to forge more consensus on how to help their clients.

“Instead of attacking each other, projecting assumptions on each other,” recalls Jeff Bennion of Connections Counseling Services, “we became friends.”

Right away, they realized they needed better research.

Marybeth Raynes, a Salt Lake City-based therapist who was one of the original Reconciliation participants, has in her practice a large number of devout Latter-day Saints and thought it might be helpful to provide them with information about how others have dealt with mixed-orientation marriages, same-sex relationships or celibacy.

Were they satisfied with their choice? What made it work or not?

“We wanted to be able to say to clients, 'Here's what we know about this group or that,’” recalls Raynes, co-editor of “Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation.” "But we didn't have enough data."

Many paths

Ty Mansfield Courtesy Photo

From September 2016 to June 2017, Reconciliation researchers collected data on SSA/LGBTQ+ from nearly 1,800 respondents from diverse religious backgrounds and perspectives. They were roughly divided equally among four options: single and celibate; single and not celibate; in a heterosexual/mixed-orientation relationship; or in a same-sex relationship.

The results challenged previous assumptions and earlier thinking, Beckstead says.

This 4 Options Survey “found many individuals reporting being satisfied and healthy in [any] of the single/relationship options,” he says. “This is in contrast to other research and cultural beliefs that declare it highly unlikely that a person will be satisfied and healthy being celibate or in a mixed-orientation relationship.”

It also undermined the notion that “it is highly unlikely that a person will be satisfied and healthy being single and noncelibate,” Beckstead says, or, among believers that they will be happy “in a same-sex relationship.”

What did predict satisfaction in every category was if they were:

• Meeting their needs for connection, intimacy and mutual understanding.

• Experiencing an authentic sexual expression.

• Resolving conflicts with religion.

• Reducing depression and anxiety.

At next month’s North Star conference, researchers are launching a follow-up survey, sampling former or current LDS SSA/LGBTQ+ participants.

“This will give us more confidence that our results are interpretable for an LDS population,” Beckstead says. “These issues require openness, curiosity and accurate information so that clients dealing with self-determination can explore more fully which single/relationship option fits for them.”

The purpose of the 4 Options Survey “wasn't to determine which options are better or healthier per se,” Mansfield explains, “but rather to determine what the mechanisms for health and satisfaction were within each of the options.”

Instead of asking why same-sex or mixed-orientation relationships work or don’t, researchers asked what are the factors that seem to be most highly correlated with satisfaction and well-being in either type of relationship.

“Or, put another way, why do they work when they work, and why do they not work when they don't work?” Mansfield says. “Because there are plenty that work and plenty that don't.”

In the original survey, 80% of 530 individuals in mixed-orientation relationships, he says, “reported being satisfied.”

Therapists are not there to “tell people what they should want but rather to help them healthily live out the option that they want for their own life,” Mansfield says. “Any of those options can be lived out in healthy and unhealthy ways, with satisfied and unsatisfied individuals.”

Though a practicing Latter-day Saint himself, who is same-sex attracted yet married to a woman and has five children, Mansfield says, “I could and do work with individuals who are in same-sex relationships and simply focus on them from the mental/relational health side of things rather than projecting a judgment of what is right or wrong for others.”

It also has enlarged therapeutic options for Beckstead, who is in a relationship with a longtime male partner.

“My collaboration with my previous enemies has helped me provide a safer space for a wide range of clients to explore these issues,” he says. “I’ve learned from collaborating with those who are different from me that life is about finding and experiencing personal and social congruence, in the most authentic ways that fit for the person.”

In other words, he says, building a counseling program for individuals on a foundation of self-determination.

Expanding horizons

Conversion therapy for minors now has been prohibited for therapists in 19 states, including Utah. The LDS Church rejects conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice, and says its therapists do not practice it.

“Banning specific therapies does not stop abuse in therapy,” the Reconciliation document declares. “Detailing specific harmful practices can.

It spells out several harmful practices including: approaching every client with a one-size-fits-all solution; urging clients to discard beliefs about their religion, faith, sexuality, or gender identity; or encouraging expectations of a specific outcome.

“Efforts to avoid these specific practices, we believe, will more effectively honor clients’ right to self-determination,” the document adds, “and promote their well-being than bans on loosely defined therapies.”

One of the most significant outcomes of this association has been opening up both groups to stories outside their traditional realms, says Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, who has a private therapy practice in Orem. “The diverse voices finally being heard is the great value of this group.”

Conservative organizations such as North Star and AMCAP (Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists) as well as institutions like Brigham Young University and the LDS Church “are now willing to listen to Reconciliation representatives,” Hansen says, because they trust that what they hear will not be “extreme and offensive.”

Just real, she says.

Mansfield is proud of their efforts. “I love what we're doing with both the Reconciliation and Growth Project and the 4 Options Survey.”

The reaching-across-the aisle approach, Mansfield maintains, “is a model that would help the whole field hold healthier space for all of those navigating these questions.”

And, says Struve, who is in a same-sex marriage, the team members “are not just sitting around doing intellectual work.”

They go to one another’s houses. They eat breakfast together. They enter the others’ spaces, whether in Provo or the Guild. They discover their common humanity in what was once alien territory.

“We say and do,” Struve says, “what we are trying to change.”