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How The Governor's Apology to Young Utahns Protesting A Revamped Conversion Therapy Bill Came To Be

Photo of Amelia Damarjian
Courtesy Amelia Damarjian
Amelia Damarjian organized a sit-in at the State Capital to protest derailment of Utah's conversion therapy ban bill.

When 19-year-old Amelia Damarjian saw that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had backed amendments to a proposed conversion therapy ban bill, she was furious.

The amendments to the bill, proposed by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, would have protected conversion therapists, rather than shielding minors from the controversial therapy.

Identifying as a lesbian, Damarjian said she knows young people who have been harmed by conversion therapy. She’s been hopeful that the bill, as originally introduced, would have curbed licensed therapists from practicing it on minors.

Damarjian said she felt dejected when she saw that the civil rights organization Equality Utah had asked the bill’s sponsors pull the legislation. It was clear the bill wasn’t going anywhere this legislative session, which ends Thursday.

So, she took to social media. She tweeted at Lt. Gov. Cox. The next morning he responded on Twitter, and she tweeted back. She quickly organized a sit-in at the State Capitol that evening to protest the bill’s derailment. Cox showed up. And then Herbert issued her an official apology.

Daysha Eaton recently talked with Damarjian about how the sit-in happened, and why the LGBTQ movement here needs more diversity to succeed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Daysha Eaton: So how did this start?

Amelia Damarjian: I just started tweeting. You know as people my age do, I just kind of started saying, 'Hey were you lying when you said you cared?' or, 'Does This community only matter to you when we get you viral speeches?' 'Are you actually going to stand for us?' ... And so, I went to work that day, got home, was getting ready to go to my other job, and then I thought, 'I need him to say something to me.'

DE: Him, being Spencer Cox.

AD: I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful to the Lieutenant Governor. OK so, Spencer — this guy who, three or four weeks ago, reached out to me when I was talking about my mental health on Twitter — said my life is valuable. We talked. He invited me to the Capitol. He's always made a point to say that he cares about young people and especially that he cares about LGBTQ people. He's kind of become known for it — now he's just going to let this happen, and I was kind to hurt.

My next job was in Salt Lake, it was a catering event. So, I thought, “OK, maybe if I hurry, I'll stop by the office and deliver a letter, just kind of saying what I think. Then, I'll go to work. I sat down to type out the letter and I was like, 'I don't think I can go to work today, I think I need to do something.’ And so, I really hastily texted my boss and then I got on Twitter again and I said ‘I'm going to sit down at the Capitol outside the governor's office until I get an apology.’ And that's kind of how it started.

DE: And you got the apology.

AD: We did. When I saw Spencer Cox come out holding a little folder, I realized they were listening, to an extent. I looked at Spencer and, you know — there's that kind of human to human connection where you're both looking at each other and really seeing each other — and I think we were both kind of crying. I went over to him and he whispered. "I'm sorry." And then we sat down — the whole group — and he started talking to us and read the apology.

DE: So, what do you want people to know about why you oppose conversion therapy?

AD: I think whether or not you've experienced conversion therapy, it's existence is kind of an affront to your existence because I think implicitly implies [it] that something about you is needing to be changed or that people think it needs to be changed.

DE: How many people do you know who have undergone conversion therapy?

AD: At least 10, that I know personally. But again, you don't know everyone that has. It's shocking.

DE: You're one of the few women who I've seen out there on the frontlines of this work here in Utah. What do you have to say about that?

AD: You know, I was actually kind of surprised when I realized how male dominated social justice movements are. And I love all of them men who came and sat with me — do not get me wrong, they're great, just awesome people. But I do think we need to see more women in these movements because I think there's issues surrounding LGBTQ rights how they affect women is a little bit differently.

I think those voices are needed. I think we need more transgender voices. Historically, a lot of the prominent activists, even nationally on these kind of issues have been cis white gay men. I think we do need to have more diversity within the movement of all kinds of race, sexuality, gender — you name, it we need it.

DE: Is there anything else that you think is important or that you want to make sure that people understand?

AD: I guess my main point, and that's kind of what I was saying at the protest and [what] we talked about the letter I received, is you really can't be an ally to a community in quiet, and you can't say you love someone if you are not respecting who they innately are. It's just kind of a harsh truth.

I think people want to play both sides, but you really can't. Something with the governor's letters, they said they love us precious youth. But when members of their own party make comments that are just downright homophobic and which, by the way, I haven't seen a renouncement of, I think you need to condemn that rhetoric. I think at minimum if you say our lives matter, maybe do something to protect us.

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