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The City Journals

Equality Utah leader urging cities to create an environment of healing

Jul 25, 2019 10:39AM ● By Cassie Goff

During the 2018 Legislative Session, a bill banning conversion therapy was revised four times before it ended on an indefinite hold. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

During this past year’s General Legislative Session, a bill that would prohibit the practice of conversion therapy on minors received much attention. After revising language and drafting four different revisions of the bill, H.B. 399 was put on an indefinite hold by the Utah Legislature on March 14. When learning that the bill had effectively died, many local leaders began taking action to support the ban of conversion therapy. Now, four months later, the state is taking a different approach at attempting to end the practice of conversion therapy on minors. 

What is it?

Conversion therapy is broadly defined as any dangerous practice aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

When it became prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, physical torture techniques were used, like electric shock therapy and aversion therapy techniques, “like sitting a gay kid down and having him look at muscle magazines and drink ipecac syrup until it induced nausea in the hopes of shifting his attractions,” Executive Director of Equality Utah Troy Williams reports. 

Such physical conversion therapy techniques have since been banned. However, talk therapy techniques are still practiced. Williams discussed with the Cottonwood Heights City Council how these techniques can be harmful on minors because they provide false hopes and false origins for same-sex attractions. 

“A therapist might take a young man and say ‘if you stop crossing your legs when you sit, if you talk with a deeper voice, if you start playing basketball, same-sex attractions will start to diminish,” Williams elaborated. “More insidiously, a talk conversion therapist will tell a youth that the reason they are gay and have same-sex attractions is because of their parents. They may have had an absent father, or a dominating mother and it places the blame on parents: creating a wedge between their mom or their dad.” 

When the rejecting techniques Williams detailed fail, a youth might feel like they failed their therapist, family, church or maybe even failed their God, which can lead to depression. Last year, new national data reported that when young people are subjected to conversion therapy their rates of depression double and attempts of suicide triple.

H.B. 399

“That’s what we are fighting against,” Williams said. “Suicide is the leading cause of death of young people in the state. LGBTQ+ kids have disproportionately higher rates of suicide than straight kids. So, we were asking ourselves ‘what do we do?’”

After working on non-discrimination laws within the state, signed by the governor in 2015, Williams set out on a strategy to get legislation banning conversion therapy on the table. 

“When we set out to propose legislation and work on this issue, the first door I knocked on was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Williams said. “They issued a strong statement repealing uses of conversion therapy.” 

When the bill was finally introduced to the legislature, H.B. 399 — Prohibition of the Practice of Conversion Therapy Upon Minors, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, read that it would “prohibit certain health care professionals from providing conversion therapy to a minor.”

Bill Revision 

Altogether, four revised drafts of the bill were seen. During the last revision, some important language was changed. The proposal ended not being a complete ban of conversion therapy, but to allow conversion therapy as long as “the therapist does not offer a permanent and long-lasting change. It was a kind of loophole. A therapist could continue practicing the insidious techniques as long as they didn’t promise a lasting change,” reported Williams. 

After learning the bill’s language had been changed, he resigned from Gov. Gary Herbert’s Suicide Prevention Task Force on March 6. In his resignation letter he wrote, “My hope was that your administration was serious about addressing issues related to LGBTQ+ youth suicide. I’ve come to realize that you are not.” 

Alongside Williams, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Area Director Taryn Hiatt resigned from the governor’s task force as well. 

On March 7, more than 30 youth members organized a sit-in outside Herbert’s office demanding an apology. By the end of the day, they received a letter from Herbert that read “..you deserve a future where can you feel safe, welcome, and loved in our state. My intention in supporting the fourth substitute was never to harm you. We have an enormous misunderstanding, and I am sorry.” 

Toward the end of the session, there was discussion of introducing a revised version of the bill during the 2020 Legislative General Session. 

However, Salt Lake County Council members and Cottonwood Heights Councilmember Tali Bruce didn’t think waiting until next year for some form of action was adequate. On March 25, Bruce announced that she wanted to discuss what the city could do for its youth with her fellow council members. 

Local Leadership

A few weeks later, on July 2, Williams spoke to the city council about conversion therapy and what had been happening at the state level addressing the practice (see above). 

Williams then discussed action on the issue that had been announced just a few days prior. On June 25, the Salt Lake County Council passed a resolution that urged the Utah State Legislature to enact laws which protect minors from conversion therapy. 

Two days after the resolution passed, Herbert got the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) involved, asking them to come together and propose regulations on conversion therapy. 

"We are in crisis mode with an all-time high level of youth suicides in Utah. We need to be taking every action possible to protect our young people and let them know that they are needed, wanted and valued," said Cottonwood Heights Councilmember Tali Bruce.

DOPL

Ultimately, this move has been summarized as Herbert tasking psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists to regulate their own field. 

“Every single legitimate mental health and medical organization has denounced the practice of conversion therapy, including the American Psychological Association and American Medical Association. The list is so long,” said Williams. 

Sen. Dan McCay and Rep. Craig Hall, who worked on H.B. 399 during the general session, released a joint statement in regards to the governor’s announcement. “We are encouraged and appreciate the governor taking positive steps forward for those impacted by conversion therapy. We have a lot of work to do as we review this policy and look forward to continuing to work with the governor’s office as we end this antiquated practice.”

“We thought that was a promising move,” said Williams. “We believe it is something that will create a permanent and lasting prohibition.” 

What now?

With so much movement on this issue on the state and county level, local cities don’t know what the right move is yet. “I have always believed this to be a social services issue, which comes from the state to the county,” said Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson. “So, we are not sure where we fit into that.”

However, Peterson “supports our governor’s position in referring this issue to DOPL for their professional review.”  

Meanwhile, Midvale City passed a resolution in support of the legislature passing a ban on conversion therapy. 

“The prohibition ship on conversion therapy was set to sail in the last session but at the last second it got hijacked by pretty much a single legislator. With resolutions passed by the county and individual cities, it's going to take more than just one or two rogue legislators to sink a conversion therapy ban in the next session," said Midvale City Councilman Dustin Gettel. 

Williams suggested waiting for DOPL to respond. In the meantime, “if we can cultivate a culture of belonging, where every child knows that they are loved, and that they have value, that is the greatest protective factor we have for reducing suicide in the state,” Williams said. “All of us working together by ending this practice will send a message of healing to generations of LGBTQ+ people in the state.” 

Suicide prevention 

Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For youth and adults in need of immediate help, please consider reaching out to the following:

  • U of U Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (UNI MCOT) offers “a free, prompt, face-to-face response to any resident of Salt Lake County who is experiencing a behavioral health crisis.”
  • Safe Utah is a mobile app that connects people with a crisis counselor via text. Counseling topics include depression, self-harm, bullying and many other issues.
  • The Trevor Project assists LBGTQ+ teens and young adults ages 13–24 with suicide and crisis intervention on their 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7386.
  • Crisis Text Line offers support and understanding in a variety of difficult situations. Text 741741 to start a conversation.
  • The Utah statewide crisis line is 801-587-3000.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).