SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would ban therapy designed to change either a teen’s sexual orientation or gender identity is expected to be introduced this week in the Utah Legislature with the goal of curbing the suicide rate of vulnerable youth.
The bill would not prevent adults from receiving therapy in an attempt to change their gender identity or sexual orientation, commonly known as conversion therapy, and would only apply to licensed therapists and clinicians, meaning clergy, life coaches and other independent individuals would not be regulated in any way.
Some have feared a Utah bill based on laws banning conversion therapy in 15 other states and the District of Columbia could interfere with free speech and discourage therapists in the state from talking to teens seeking to live in alignment with their faith about alternatives to pursuing same-gender relationships.
But executive director of Equality Utah, Troy Williams, who helped draft the bill, said he worked with local stakeholders, including representatives from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to ensure that underage clients are protected from harm, “while permitting therapists to help youth address issues related to their religious practice and beliefs in ways that are neutral to their sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Marty Stephens, director of government relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church has long denounced any therapy that subjects people to abusive practices and does not oppose the legislation as it is currently written.
“We appreciated the willingness of the sponsors to work with us to make sure counseling in alignment with the church’s standards, such as abstinence before marriage, does not come under the definition of conversion therapy,” Stephens said.
Conversion therapy has been discredited by major medical associations because it is not scientifically sound. The American Psychological Association has shown it can cause long-lasting psychological harm by increasing feelings of guilt, self-hatred, isolation and suicidality.
But few, if any, therapists in the state still practice conversion therapy, prompting some to question whether the law is needed, if it will have any impact, or if it is merely symbolic.
“This kind of legislation is powerful in terms of sending a message … but it has limitations in terms of what difference it can make,” said Jim Struve, a licensed clinical social worker who helped found the Reconciliation and Growth Project, a group that brings faith-affirmative and LGBTQ-affirmative therapists together to discuss sexuality and religion. Struve said that teens conflicted about same gender attraction might be pushed to seek the help of unregulated professionals lacking psychological training.
Both Williams and Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, who will sponsor the bill along with Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, emphasized the importance of the message of inclusion they hope the bill will send.
“There's an urgency right now with suicide rates in our state,” said Williams. “There's not one cause or one solution for youth suicide. But this is one solution: sending a message to young people that they are accepted the way they are.”
Williams said the yet-to-be-proposed bill is Equality Utah’s response to Gov. Gary Herbert’s call for community proposals to address Utah’s youth suicide rate, which is the fifth highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bill would subject licensed mental health professionals who practice conversion therapy to disciplinary action by the appropriate state board.
According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously consider attempting suicide, and they are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.
For teens, parents are the first line of defense in guarding against suicide and self-harm, according to Caitlin Ryan, director of the San Francisco-based Family Acceptance Project.
Ryan's research shows that when families don't accept a child’s sexual orientation and pressure the child to change it, that child is twice as likely to attempt suicide and have high levels of depression than if the family is accepting.
Around 700,000 LGBTQ individuals in the U.S. have undergone conversion therapy, half of them as adolescents, according to a 2018 report from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy.
Out of 3,782 licensed psychologists, marriage and family therapists and clinical mental health counselors in the state of Utah, according to the Department of Professional Licensing, none call themselves conversion therapists.
But the exact definition of conversion therapy — also known as reparative therapy, sexual reorientation therapy, or sexual orientation change efforts — is not universally agreed upon. Generally, conversion therapy refers to efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation by minimizing same gender attraction and maximizing heterosexual attraction.
In 1987, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of psychological disorders. Before then, being gay was viewed as a dysfunction and treatments, including electroshock therapy, aversion therapy, and hypnotherapy, were developed to correct it.
As these practices faced increasing scrutiny, other techniques for addressing unwanted homosexuality evolved. The most common technique used today is talk therapy, according to the UCLA study. But even talk therapy to help people lessen or reframe their thinking about unwanted sexual attraction is controversial. Some call it conversion therapy, others say it’s not.
It is unclear how many Utah therapists today do talk therapy to help youth navigate same-gender attraction in a way that aligns with their personal values.
Dancer and actor Benji Schwimmer became internationally known when he won Fox’s "So You Think You Can Dance," in 2006. He said 12 years of conversion therapy left him with “not only an imprint in my mind but a really heavy scar,” causing him to go through “various iterations of suicidality.”
Schwimmer said he began conversion therapy in California around age 14 when he was a member of a Latter-day Saint congregation and realized he was attracted to men. He said he tried every method available to him: talk therapy, private coaching, support groups online and in person, workbooks, hypnotherapy, and aversion therapy, which involved drinking ipecac syrup to induce vomiting while looking at homoerotic images. Later when he moved to Utah, he continued both talk therapy and aversion therapy with licensed therapists.
Now at age 35, Schwimmer said he is just now beginning to get rid of the “stain” that conversion therapy left on his life.
“Had I not had conversion therapy, the sky would have been a little brighter, food would taste a little better, movies would be a little funnier,” he said.
David Matheson, 57, who was a conversion therapist for more than a decade before he renounced the practice and came out earlier this year as a gay man, said even conversion talk therapy efforts can be harmful because they often begin with the idea that being gay is bad.
But, he said, that idea doesn’t necessarily originate with the therapists. Rather, it comes from those seeking conversion therapy.
“People say that we prey upon people, that we try to convert people, we try to convince people,” he said. “But the problem is that people come to us needing something, wanting something, asking us, ‘Please fix it.’”
Matheson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is among those, including Jews, Muslims and other Christians, who have developed programs to help people reconcile their sexual desires with religious teachings. He helped found Brothers Road, an organization for adults dealing with unwanted same gender attraction. It is one of a number of support groups that operate in Utah but would not be affected by the bill because it is run by volunteers and geared toward adults. The Brothers Road website says the organization does not provide conversion therapy.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not support the practice. The LDS Family Services description of services says, “Our therapists do not provide what is referred to as conversion therapy or sexual orientation change efforts.” In 2016, the church released a statement that said, “We hope those who experience same-sex attraction find compassion and understanding from family members, professional counselors and church members.”
It is unclear whether the bill would affect the practice of therapists such as Jeff Robinson, 58, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Provo who helps teens live according to their faith.
Robinson said he is not a conversion therapist, but he still fears a bill might discourage him from offering his services to minors, even if doing so is not explicitly prohibited by the law.
Robinson calls his technique “context specific” therapy and says his three goals are to 1) help clients achieve greater congruity between their religious beliefs and actions; 2) think differently in regard to same gender attraction so it becomes less troubling and problematic to them by decreasing shame, unhealthy guilt or self-loathing; 3) explore what alternatives and options might be open to them that would be compatible with their religious beliefs.
Robinson said a person's choices and sexuality can change naturally over time, citing research by Lisa Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah.
But Robinson said he does not try to forcefully alter a client’s sexual orientation or claim he can "cure" or "fix" them. Rather, he helps clients change how they think about homosexual feelings so that they don’t interfere with the way the client wants to live his or her life.
On his website, Robinson sells an audio recording that “describes how many struggling with same-sex attraction failed to learn the language of heterosexuality” and “discusses ways that men desiring to increase their heterosexual desire have been successful.”61 comments on this story
Rich Wyler, 56, helped Matheson found Brothers Road and lives in Virginia with his wife of nine years. Wyler claims conversion therapy saved his life and marriage. He first began the therapy around age 24 but said he would have gone “much earlier” if he had known about it.
Minors shouldn’t be “hampered by the government” in seeking help and resources that are available, he said.
Williams said the intent of the bill is to protect minors from harm.
“There's been a lot of hurt and harm throughout the decades caused by these types of therapies,” said Williams. “The best outcome for me would be that this legislation is a vehicle for healing.”