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Advocates Quit Governor's Youth Suicide Task Force After "Hijacking" of Conversion Therapy Bill

Photo of Karianne Lisonbee.
Daysha Eaton
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee is Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. The bill passed out of her committee on Tuesday but had several major changes.

Updated 5:03 p.m. MST 3/6/19

In a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday, two key supporters of legislation that would have banned conversion therapy with minors in Utah resigned from the Governor’s Youth Suicide Task Force.

Troy Williams, Executive Director of civil rights organization, Equality Utah and Taryn Hiatt, with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention both announced that their resignations are in protest of revisions to the conversion therapy bill.

Gov. Gary Herbert had supported the original bill, but at the last minute endorsed substitutions.

Advocates have asked the bill’s sponsors to pull it from further consideration.

“He turned his back on the leading medical and mental health experts and he sided with conversion therapists,” said Williams.

Herbert’s office released letters Wednesday afternoon inviting the advocates to meet with him in person to discuss their concerns.

The resignations came a day after what Williams characterized as a “hostile takeover” of a hearing on the legislation.

After hours of emotional testimony, members of Utah’s House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed a version of a bill that is meant to ban conversion therapy.

Those for and against conversion therapy literally lined up on opposite sides of the packed committee room during the morning’s meeting. Those who want to stop conversion therapy cited scientific evidence that it doesn’t work.

“We stand with science. There is no evidence that supports that conversion therapy — trying to change the sexual orientation of an individual — is effective,” said Taryn Hiatt with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.“In fact, the evidence supports the opposite, that it causes harm, it increases suicidality, it increases depression.”

The amended bill doesn’t require therapists to remain neutral and doesn’t cover transgender minors. That reflects the desires of people like Merrilee Boyack of Family Watch International, a group which claims to be a non-profit international educational organization but has also been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Boyack said states that have banned conversion therapy are liberal.

“I want to remind everyone that 24 states have rejected therapy bans or let them die. Twenty-four,” she said. “Only 15 have supported those. Every one of those states is very liberal: California, Oregon, Hawaii, etc. Utah laws should reflect Utah values. Our kids deserve the choice.”

Several conservative groups opposed the original bill. Among those groups was the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, a local counseling center that offers conversion therapy. The group is associated with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which was started by the founders of conversion therapy in the United States.

Some conservative counselors said they worried the original legislation could limit them from treating people with addictions to pornography or pedophilia.

Joan Landes, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, called the original measure a “must stay gay” bill. Landes expressed concerns that the original bill could limit counselors like her in treating serious sexual disorders, such as pedophilia.

Some conservative therapists conflated being gay with unrelated sexual disorders like pedophilia, sexual addiction, pornography during their testimony. Others said it was irresponsible to take the perspective of some individual therapists who may have a lot to lose if this bill passes.

Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, who said he helps people reduce same-sex attraction, was pleased with the bill as amended.

“I was happy with the results. I think it was fair,” said Robinson. “I think it provided good protections against the worst kinds of practices, which is what we need to do.”

Troy Williams with the civil rights organization Equality Utah said, “The majority of the committee has sided with quack therapy, with snake-oil salesmen. The bill that passed out will not protect children from the harmful, damaging effects of conversion therapy. This is shameful.”

The amended bill includes a ban on practices like electroshock therapy, which was done in the 1970s.

But, opponents of conversion therapy, like attorney Clifford Rosky who helped craft the originally proposed legislation, said those aversive techniques have not been done for years.

Rosky added that the revised bill has no teeth.

“The bill that passed out of committee pretends to ban conversion therapy, but it does not,” said Rosky. “It leaves out the most harmful practices of conversion therapy and fails to protect the people most vulnerable to it.”

The bill as modified, Rosky said, would allow therapists in Utah to continue to change a minor’s sexual orientation or identity.

“It would be better to have no law at all,” Rosky said.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R- West Valley City, said after the hearing that he also has concerns about the amended legislation.

“The problem is that therapists can be creative,” Hall said. He explained that the way the revised bill is worded, “a therapist can easily get around what is prohibited.”

With just days left in the session, Hall said Tuesday that he was still hopeful lawmakers could get the legislation back on course.

The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints said it would not oppose the original bill. Governor Gary Herbert supported both the original and the amended bill. It now moves to the full House.

Daysha Eaton reports about religion and cultural issues, including social justice, for KUER.
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