GOP lawmakers in Utah have unveiled a bill meant to protect LGBTQ kids from “conversion therapy” ― a dangerous and discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Republican state Reps. Craig Hall and Dan McCay introduced the bill on Thursday in the state legislature. The proposed law would prohibit therapists from trying to “change, eliminate, or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions, or feelings” related to a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Therapists who flout this rule could potentially lose their license.
Advocates hailed the bill as a milestone in conservative Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which condemns same-sex relationships, has considerable political influence.
Church officials indicated earlier this week that they would not oppose the bill, the Associated Press reported.
“There is a growing scientific and medical consensus in America that conversion therapy is damaging and ineffective. People of faith are seeing that,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy group that has made passing the ban a top priority.
Conversion therapy, sometimes called “reparative therapy,” refers to attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation. The practices can range from talk therapy to electric shock therapy, the AP reports. Although this therapy doesn’t happen as overtly as it has in the past, varieties of it still persist.
In a 2009 report, the American Psychological Association found no evidence that performing conversion therapy on minors can ultimately alter sexual orientation. APA researchers did, however, find some evidence indicating the practice had negative side effects, including depression, suicidality and anxiety.
Stephenie Larsen is the founder of Encircle, a LGBTQ resource center in Provo that is also one of the largest providers LGBTQ-specific therapy in Utah. Larsen told HuffPost that conversion therapy is a “damaging and harmful practice.”
“This is a huge step forward for Utah,” Larsen said about the bill.
For decades, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that queer people could be “cured” of same-sex attractions. More recently, the church has denounced conversion therapy and the idea that homosexuality is a sin. However, it still maintains that same-sex relationships are sinful and that Mormons in those relationships are apostates. LGBTQ members who want to remain in good standing with the church are expected to either commit to a lifetime of celibacy or marry partners of the opposite sex.
Notably, the Utah bill contains an exception for religious counseling. It explicitly does not apply to a clergy member or “religious counselor” who is primarily acting in a “pastoral or religious capacity and not in the capacity of a health care professional.”
Still, some advocates were concerned about the language of the bill. Jennifer Pizer, law and policy director for LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal, said the bill suggests a licensed health professional who also is a clergy member can engage in pastoral counseling according to religious teachings, contrary to what they are permitted to do as licensed therapists. Although she supports the bill as a “step in the right direction,” Pizer said she is concerned that this language “invites blurring” between the roles of clergy and licensed mental health professionals.
“The concern here is that those roles should be kept fully, cleanly distinct,” Pizer told HuffPost. “The cost will be borne by those who are confused, and subject themselves to harmful treatment thinking it’s mental health care.”
However, Williams insisted that the bill’s language doesn’t include a “religious exemption.”
“Like every other state conversion therapy law, our bill only applies to licensed healthcare professionals. The state does not regulate clergy,” Williams said. “To do so would violate First Amendment protections.”
Lisa Dame is the vice president of Mama Dragons, a group of largely Mormon mothers who advocate on behalf of their LGBTQ children. Dame, who lives in Sandy, Utah, told HuffPost that she doesn’t think the clergy exception undermines the effectiveness of the bill.
“It is for licensed professionals only, who are regulated by the state,” Dame said. “Clergy can not be monitored in the same way that a professionally licensed therapist can be.”
Utah’s bill is part of a nationwide campaign pushing for states to ban conversion therapy. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the practice to date.
The campaign has received some pushback from those who believe conversion therapy bans violate free speech and the right to religious freedom.
Equality Utah sees the bill as a way to address Utah’s suicide rates, which are the fifth highest in the country. Williams said his group worked with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to craft the bill’s language.
“For over a decade we have been actively engaging the LDS Church in dialogue over LGBTQ issues,” Williams said. “While we disagree on many issues like marriage equality, it’s clear that we share a common goal to see young people live happy and healthy lives.”
Dame said the Mama Dragons also see the effort as a “suicide prevention bill.”
“We have seen firsthand in our community, the damage that is done with the mental health of people who have undergone these therapies,” Dame said. ” We believe that our children are perfect as they are.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.