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Governor Asks State Regulators For New Rules On Conversion Therapy

Photo of Governor.
Screenshot KUED

Gov. Gary Herbert has directed state regulators to create new rules for monitoring conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice intended to alter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The announcement came midway through Herbert’s monthly KUED news conference where, after recapping his visit with Pope Francis and touting the state’s low unemployment rate, the governor told reporters he had asked the state agency responsible for overseeing the licensing of psychologists to create guidelines over how conversion therapy could be practiced in Utah.

“I’m wanting to have the Psychologist Licensing Board provide guidance, rules and regulations,” Herbert told reporters. “What are the parameters? What can you do? What can you not do based on good science and public input?”

The governor shared a letter he recently sent to Francine Giani, the executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce. In it, he asked that the state “ethically regulate psychological interventions for minor children regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity.” He requested a version of the rules be made available for public comment by September 16.

“I am particularly troubled by what I have learned about interventions using physical distress,” wrote Herbert in his June 17 directive to the department. “In my understanding, such techniques would seem to be unethical, and, therefore, I do not understand why they would be a part of professional practice.”

The announcement comes three months after a bill banning conversion therapy for minors collapsed in the legislature. The House Judiciary Committee had voted in favor of a gutted version of the bill, endorsed by Herbert, which would leave transgender youth unprotected. The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, then decided to abandon the legislation rather than pass a skeleton version.

Hall joined co-sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Rivertonin in issuing a statement today that noted both legislators “appreciate the Governor taking positive steps forward.”

“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,” the statement reads.

During Thursday’s conference, Herbert said he hopes that by turning the matter of conversion therapy over to the Psychologist Licensing Board, “it will save us time” and “take us out of the political arena.” He added that he had already vetted the directive with the state legislature, who commended it as a “good approach.”

Herbert emphasized that his decision does not bar legislators from considering bills on conversion therapy, but, rather, meant lawmakers didn’t “need to wait until 2020 to deal with this.” 

“This’ll help us get a leg up,” he said. “All parties on this issue should applaud this effort.” 

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, wrote in a statement that the organization was heartened by the move and “hopeful that placing this issue in the hands of licensed psychologists will result in a complete and permanent ban.” 

Rob Moolman, the executive director of the Utah Pride Center, agreed the move was a step forward, but said he “giggled” when reading the portion of the directive in which the governor states he can’t know “what inferences to draw from the psychological literature” on conversion therapy as he is not, himself, a psychologist.

“You don’t have to be a psychologist to … know that the research is pointing in the direction that this is a dangerous practice. It’s the same thing as saying since ‘I’m not a climate scientist, I can’t venture an opinion on climate change,’” says Moolman. “We at the Pride Center know the impact [conversion therapy] has on young people that have been pressured or suggested to go. ... The impact of the worst-case scenario is young people complete or attempt suicide.”

A recent study from San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project found rates of suicide among people young people whose parents had pushed them to change their sexual orientation were nearly double that of LGBT youth who had never had a conversion therapy experience. Levels of depression also doubled.

When asked by a reporter at Thursdays’ conference about critics who believe that all forms of conversion therapy should be categorized as “abusive,” Herbert said he wasn’t sure “that everything that’s being done” could be colored that way.

“Again, it’s not my expertise. It’s like asking me, ‘How would you like me to fix the plumbing in your house?’ And, I’m saying, that’s not my job, that’s not what I’m qualified to do ... So I’m looking to the experts to, in fact, have this discussion with other experts.”

Rebecca Ellis is a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Brown University in 2018 with a Bachelor's in Urban Studies. In college, Rebecca served as a managing editor at the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, and freelanced for Rhode Island's primary paper, the Providence Journal. She has spent past summers as an investigator at the Bronx Defenders, a public defender's office in the Bronx, New York, and as a reporter at the Miami Herald, filing general assignment stories and learning to scuba dive.
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