Utah Was Set to Ban Conversion Therapy. Then It Didn’t.
The Mormon Church had backed an anti-conversion therapy bill. But this week the process of getting it passed into law fell apart.
A lot can change in a weekend.
Last week, a Utah bill banning conversion therapy for minors seemed poised to pass: the bill had secured sponsors in the Republican-dominated legislature, Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed the bill, and—crucially—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, said it would not oppose the legislation.
The path forward was clear. Utah could have become the most conservative state in the country to ban the medically-discredited practice of trying to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
But this week, the entire process fell apart.
On Tuesday, as Deseret News reported, the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a significantly-altered substitute bill introduced by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee that earned the surprise endorsement of Herbert.
LGBT advocates decried the changes made to the original bill. The bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, disapproved of them, too, and decided not to further pursue passage given the alterations made within the House Judiciary Committee.
On Wednesday, the bill was circled, which means that it was tabled indefinitely and therefore will not advance this legislative cycle.
In its original form, introduced by Hall in late February, the bill would have banned “any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client.” [PDF]
Lisonbee’s March 5 substitute bill, on the other hand, removed “gender identity” and more narrowly defined conversion therapy as treatments that promise “a complete and permanent reversal in the patient or client’s sexual orientation” and induce some form of “physical discomfort” like electric shock or vomiting [PDF].
Effectively, the substitute bill would only apply to the most extreme forms of conversion therapy—and even then would leave transgender minors unprotected. But Herbert endorsed this bill mere days after endorsing Hall’s original legislation.
“This is embarrassing for the state of Utah, and sad for LGBTQ youth who hoped Governor Herbert might be their champion,” Troy Williams, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, told The Daily Beast.
Williams resigned Wednesday from the Governor’s Suicide Prevention Taskforce, writing in his letter to Herbert that “the legislation you endorsed excluded transgender children and will allow conversion therapists to continue their practice with impunity.”
Hall, who sponsored the original proposed ban, told The Daily Beast that he is “disappointed the bill [he] proposed did not advance out of the House Judiciary Committee” but that he “respect[s] the legislative process and look[s] forward to productive discussions on this sensitive issue in the future.”
At the heart of the bill’s breakdown is the question of how Lisonbee’s substitute bill came about.
Troy Williams told The Daily Beast that Lisonbee “worked with The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice, which is run by the former director of NARTH,” or the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality—a conversion therapy organization—to draft the legislation.
“She successfully hijacked the legislation and forced in a hostile substitute that was carefully co-drafted with actual conversion therapists,’ said Williams.
Reached for comment, Lisonbee told The Daily Beast, “I don’t know any attorneys in the Alliance for The Therapeutic Choice, nor am I familiar with the group.”
“We actively sought out therapists who were neutral on the issue,” Lisonbee continued. “I understand that Troy [Williams] is making that claim, but he doesn’t know who we’ve spoken with and his assertion is reckless and dishonest.”
In a longer and more general statement, Rep. Lisonbee criticized Williams for resigning from the Youth Suicide Task Force and said that her substitute bill was intended to address “troublesome syntactical problems in the original bill” that, she claimed, could have had “a chilling effect on therapists’ ability to respond appropriately to their clients’ assumptions and goals.”
Utah currently has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the country—a statistic that many LGBT advocates believe is fueled by familial and social rejection of LGBT youth. Conversion therapy, as major medical associations have stated in their condemnations of the practice, can also have deleterious effects on mental health.
For Williams, who had praised Herbert for supporting the original bill, the governor’s endorsement of the substitute bill feels like a betrayal.
“He turned his back on the mental health establishment and sided with quack therapists,” said Williams, adding that he was “astonished” by the move.
Herbert’s office did not immediately provide comment to The Daily Beast. In a letter to Williams, Herbert said that he was “very sorry to hear” that the state’s top LGBT leader had resigned from the Suicide Prevention Taskforce—and further suggested that Lisonbee’s bill was a way to balance the interests of LGBT youth and their parents.
“In this matter, I have felt that is very important that our LGBTQ+ youth need better access to trusted professionals and people they can talk to about their identity and feelings,” Gov. Herbert wrote. “I also think it’s important to protect the rights of parents in counseling with their children in these sensitive matters.”
On Twitter, Williams called the letter “empty rhetoric,” pointing to the widespread disavowal of conversion therapy in the medical community.
Now, the delicate process of passing a conversion therapy ban in Utah has broken down. LGBT groups are not supporting Lisonbee’s substitute. The bill is effectively dead—for now.
The Church of Jesus’s Christ of Latter-day Saints—which did not oppose Rep. Craig Hall’s original bill, thereby clearing a path forward for the legislation in a state where most legislators are LDS—told The Daily Beast that it has no comment on the circling of the conversion therapy ban.
Williams hopes, if anything, that the breakdown of the bill can draw attention to the continuing influence of conversion therapy in the state.
“People keep asking, ‘Does conversion therapy still happen in Utah?’ and we learned this week that indeed it does,” said Williams.
Williams has already told Salt Lake Tribune reporter Beth Rodgers that Equality Utah will “be back year after year after year” to get the conversion therapy ban passed.
All agree that the prospect of seeing a conversion therapy ban become law in 2019–a goal which once seemed realistic—is now gone. Hall told The Daily Beast, “At this time, I don’t anticipate the bill will progress any further during this legislative session.”
But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.
Said Hall, “We always knew this would be an uphill battle.”