SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed HB399, a bill that would ban the practice of conversion therapy on minors in the state of Utah, the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, announced during a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Friday.
The definition of conversion therapy, or therapy intended to change a child's sexual orientation or gender identity, was the subject of debate at the hearing, but no vote was held.
In its original form, the bill defines conversion therapy as "any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity." The definition includes therapy that "seeks to change, eliminate or reduce behaviors, expressions, attractions or feelings related to a patient or client's sexual orientation or gender identity."
But some legislators found that definition to be too restrictive, especially as it limits what therapists are allowed to say when they are administering talk therapy.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, and Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, both proposed substitution bills that altered how conversion therapy is defined.
However, all legislators who spoke at the hearing agreed the practice of trying to change a child's sexual orientation by force, or suggesting to a child that something about them is flawed or broken and needs to be fixed, is dangerous.
"It's encouraging to see that the substitute bills agree that conversion therapy is ineffective and harmful and it must be banned, at least some forms of it," said Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah and member of gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah’s advisory council, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the bill. "Unfortunately, we don't think (the substitutes) work. ... Although well-intended, they have the wrong definition of conversion therapy and as a result they would not actually prohibit any conversion therapy. They wouldn't prevent it, and they wouldn't prevent a single suicide."
Brammer proposed a substitute bill that focusses on pain-inducing techniques, like aversion therapy and electric shock therapy, and excludes talk therapy from the definition of conversion therapy.
He pointed out that if the original version of the bill passed, it would be the first time the state has outlawed a specific form of talk therapy.
"It is not a small step for us to take to say this speech — which is still protected, even professional speech — is no longer allowed. I want to make sure I am understanding the gravity of that," Brammer said.
Brammer also questioned why there have not been more lawsuits brought against therapists or doctors who have practiced conversion therapy.
"This seems like a civil damages issue," said Brammer. "If the lawsuits aren't being brought, I'm wondering, why? Because that seems to be a fairly significant portion of the puzzle to preventing the behaviors ... moving forward."
Rosky said the shame and trauma associated with conversion therapy as well as statute of limitations laws have prevented many individuals who have suffered because of conversion therapy from pursuing legal action. He added that practices like electric shock therapy and aversion therapy are no longer common and therefore prohibiting them would have little significance. On the other hand, including talk therapy in the definition of conversion therapy is critical, he said.
"Words are just as damaging to children as these more physical methods," Rosky said.
Lisonbee proposed another definition for conversion therapy that focuses on whether a therapist promises a client that their techniques will result in a "complete and permanent change" to his or her sexual orientation, or otherwise leads the client to believe such an outcome is likely.
Lisonbee said she was contacted by therapists in the state who said the prescriptive language of the original bill would have a "chilling effect" on their ability to respond to clients' needs.
Rosky disagreed with Lisonbee's proposed definition, saying that even if a therapist tells a client conversion therapy is not likely to lead to a permanent change, that will not stop them from performing the therapy and causing harm.
Lisonbee's recommendation was to include more description of best therapeutic practices in the bill. Her substitute adds language that says conversion therapy does not include therapy that "explores the patient or client's assumptions and goals and maximizes self-determination by permitting a patient or client to decide how to self-identify and live out the patient or client's sexual orientation."
Lisonbee also pointed to a 2009 American Psychological Association report that said therapists who reject a client's request for a sexual orientation change evaluation at the onset of treatment, without exploring why the client may wish to change, could instill hopelessness in the client who may already feel discouraged by the lack of options available to them.
Rep. Eric K. Hutchings, R-Kearns, questioned how he would respond personally if his child came to him and was distressed about their sexual orientation, saying, "I don't want to be this way."9 comments on this story
"How do you tell a child, 'That's not an issue we can discuss, or not a therapy we can provide? I'm sorry, there's no hope for that,'" Hutchings said.
Lisa Hansen, a marriage and family therapist at Flourish Counseling Services in Provo, testified on behalf of the bill, saying it will help families and prevent suicides. Hansen said effective therapy does not start with the therapist saying, "change is or isn’t going to happen, or should or shouldn’t happen." Rather, effective therapy starts with exploring what is going on with the client and how that is making them feel, she said.