SALT LAKE CITY — Two gay rights advocates will resign from Gov. Gary Herbert's suicide prevention task force due to Herbert's decision to support a version of HB399, a bill banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors in Utah, that advocates said was too weak.
The bill has been circled, meaning it has been put on hold, after the House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to favorably recommend a substitute version of the bill, proposed by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse. Advocates say the edited bill will provide a "safe harbor" for conversion therapists, rather than banning the practice.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, and Taryn Hiatt, area director for the America Foundation for Suicide Prevention, announced their resignations from the governor's task force at a Wednesday press conference at the State Capitol.
"(The governor) turned his back on LGBTQ youth," Williams said. "He sided with conversion therapists."
Herbert sent personal letters to Williams and Hiatt lamenting their resignations and acknowledging disagreement. He invited both to meet with him regarding their specific concerns.
"I am anxious to ensure that these precious youth — of limitless potential and boundless worth — are loved and accepted for who they are," the governor wrote in the letters. "Our shared goal of reducing teen suicide should remain our primary focus and objective."
Equality Utah spearheaded the effort to ban conversion therapy for minors after Herbert asked the group's representatives to come up with legislative proposals to reduce the state's youth suicide rate, Williams said.
"With the task force, it was really important that the LGBTQ community not be window dressing for them. Not 'Oh we've got a gay on the task force, we're good,'" said Williams. "There has to be substance with the task force that they are actually seriously engaged in protecting LGBTQ youth. So far we have not seen that from the governor's office."
According to Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah and member of Equality Utah’s advisory council, the substitute bill is "pointless at best" because it focuses on sexual orientation and does not guard against efforts to change a child's gender identity. More importantly, it defines conversion therapy as therapy that claims to "result in a complete and permanent reversal" of a client's sexual orientation.
Rosky said therapists who simply notify patients that their methods are not guaranteed to work, will be able to continue to practice conversion therapy.
In the original bill, Equality Utah and the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, defined conversion therapy as "any practice or treatment that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a patient or client," including efforts to reduce attractions and behaviors.
Legislators on the House Judiciary Committee felt the bill's original language was too vague and restrictive, and proposed a series of substitutes.
Williams said the bill was "hijacked" by committee members and that it is not worth moving forward with a version of the bill that is ineffective.
"Who has really hijacked the process in my opinion is the sponsor and those working with him who have chosen to kill the bill rather than put a prohibition of conversion therapy into law," said Lisonbee, who said she has received messages from individuals saying she has "blood on her hands" because she did not support the original bill.
"This was a very workable compromise. It was very strong and vetted language, and to suggest I'm willing to run this language in the Utah Legislature and that I subsequently don't care about LGBTQ youth is offensive," she added.
Lisonbee said she spent hours talking to mental health experts and carefully crafting the language in the substitute bill. She said she expressed concerns about the vagueness of the bill's language to sponsors and advocates early on, but they were not willing to compromise.
"I'm disappointed the bill I proposed did not advance out of the House Judiciary Committee," said Hall. "But I respect the legislative process and look forward to discussions on this sensitive issue in the future."
Lisa Hansen, a marriage and family therapist at Flourish Counseling Services in Provo, said therapists who think the original language was vague most likely do not understand best therapeutic practices because effective therapy is always neutral in regard to gender identity and sexual orientation.
"They need additional training, or they will continue to harm the children that I see," Hansen said.
Hansen also expressed concern about LGBTQ youth in Utah who will be discouraged because a bill banning conversion therapy was not passed.34 comments on this story
"I have a finger on the pulse of 400 young people a month who will express to me what this bill meant to them," Hansen said.
Williams said that although the bill will not move forward this session, Equality Utah will continue to work with legislators to fight for a ban on conversion therapy that they feel will actually make a difference and protect children.
"We will be back here year after year after year," Williams said.
"We started a powerful conversation," Hiatt said. "It shows the education that still needs to take place among our legislators."