SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to recommend a bill that would ban the practice of conversion therapy for gay teens in Utah. But advocates don't agree with the way conversion therapy is defined in the version of the bill that was approved.
The approved version of the bill, proposed by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, prohibits therapists from asserting that a client's sexual orientation need to change and from claiming their methods will result in "a complete and permanent" reversal. The bill also specifically prohibits treatment that causes physical pain, such as electric shock or aversion therapy.
Gay rights advocates, including Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams, who helped draft the original bill, expressed concerns that the recommended substitute bill excludes efforts to change a child's gender identity from the definition of conversion therapy and also permits therapists to practice talk therapy with the purpose of changing a child's sexual orientation, as long as the therapist notifies the client that the methods are not guaranteed to be effective.
Williams said the bill the committee recommended, "will not protect children from the harmful, damaging effects of conversion therapy."
"In fact, the bill as it is constituted will actually provide a safe harbor for conversion therapists," Williams added.
Eight representatives voted in favor of Lisonbee's substitute bill. Lisonbee announced that Gov. Gary Herbert's office also supports the version of the bill the committee approved. Four voted in opposition, including Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, chief sponsor of the bill.
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, spoke in favor of the substitute bill, which he said clarifies the vagueness of other versions. He said the issues that accompany gender identity, including sex change procedures, are significantly different from issues surrounding sexual orientation and therefore, the two cannot be lumped together. Brammer said that instead of providing a broad definition, the bill outlines specific practices that cause harm, including promising a child their sexual orientation can be changed and abusive therapeutic techniques.
"This may not be the perfect guide to the very best practice that could be out there," Brammer said. "However, the way our legislative framework works is not necessarily mandating that the perfect and best practice out there is performed. It's usually to try to say, don't do these things we know are harmful."
More than 30 community members attended Tuesday's hearing to voice support or concern.
Caleb, who asked that his last name be withheld, said sexual orientation "change therapy" helped him resolve unwanted same-sex attraction and depression that he feels stemmed from childhood sexual abuse. He attended the meeting with his wife.
"My therapist never suggested I do anything to make me feel uncomfortable, punish myself or make me feel shame," said Caleb, who started therapy at age 18 but said he wishes he could have gone earlier.
"I believe this therapy saved my life," Caleb said. "I know that for the sake of children who may be struggling with similar issues, that this could save their lives too."
Arturo Fuentes, 35, of Provo, shared a different perspective. He said he underwent conversion therapy for a decade, starting in high school, and that efforts to alter his sexual orientation were ineffective and harmful.
"I was a minor wanting (conversion therapy). That didn't make it right," Fuentes said. "I understand all these therapists mean well, but there are so many different approaches and methods to this. We can’t be experimenting on children as to how to change something so complex."
Trained mental health professionals also spoke out on both sides.
Dr. Christy Kane, a licensed mental health counselor who practices in Salt Lake and Utah counties, said the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing already provides sufficient regulations.
"I oppose this bill because I already feel that if we engage in inappropriate actions, there is a governing body of our license that could take action," Kane said.
Dr. Nanci Klein, director of professional affairs for the Utah Psychological Association, supports the original version of the bill but not the recommended substitute legislation. She said a definition of conversion therapy that focuses on a therapists' guarantee is "very narrow and limited."
"There is already case law that defines a guarantee of change as fraud," Klein said.18 comments on this story
Before the committee voted to recommend the substitute bill, Brammer noted that despite some concerns with the bill's language, all committee members agreed certain conversion therapy practices are harmful and need to be addressed.
"There’s 29 ways to kill a bill. We’re not trying to kill this bill, and there’s a reason for that," Brammer said. "There is a significant concern for suicide among youth dealing with sexual orientation issues."
After the vote, Williams noted the bill can still be amended as it moves through the House and Senate.
"We are going to keep fighting to protect kids," he said.