SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert issued an apology letter Thursday to a group of young protesters who staged a sit-in outside his office earlier that day, following the collapse of a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for gay minors in Utah.
Protesters were upset the governor chose to support a substitute version of HB399 they felt was too weak and protected conversion therapists rather than banning the practice of using therapy to try and change the sexual orientation or gender identity of children.
Amelia Damarjian, 19, from Orem, said she spearheaded the demonstration along with 19-year-old Isaac Reese, who lives in Salt Lake City. The pair arrived at the Capitol around 2 p.m. Eventually, a group of about 30 young people gathered outside the governor's office door.
Around 6 p.m., Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox delivered an apology letter from the governor to the group, Damarjian said.
"I realize there is much I do not understand about the issues that LGBTQ youth face every day," Herbert wrote in the letter. "We have had an enormous misunderstanding, and I am sorry."
Herbert also said that he and the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, agreed to continue working on a conversion therapy ban and invited the recipients of the letter to work together with them on the legislation.
On Twitter, Cox explained what went on behind the scenes that led the governor to support the substitute version of the bill, proposed by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, rather than the version of the bill supported by advocates, including representatives from Equality Utah.
"I worked on this bill since November and thought we had a chance," wrote Cox. "Unfortunately, as we started calling to lobby committee for support, it became clear that we didn’t have the votes for the bill to pass. We felt it was better to get something that could pass — and then continue to work on this issue."
"I know it’s important to have a foil, but I’m sad that Troy (Williams) chose the governor when it was clear to us that the bill was DOA."
Damarjian, one of the leaders of the protest, tweeted back, "Please don’t blame the gay rights activist for leaving the table."
"You can’t support that zombie bill, which basically codifies the acceptance of conversion therapy in many situations, then call us out for wanting better," she continued.
Damarjian said she was "devastated" when the original bill would not pass.
"The larger LGBTQ community is expected to wait for everything and be overly polite, to beg on our knees for just the basics," she told the Deseret News.
Damarjian said she was happy to receive the governor's letter but felt it was vague and that Herbert did not take ownership for his actions.
"There's a difference between saying 'I'm sorry you're hurt,' and 'I'm sorry for what I've done,'" Damarjian said. However, she said she was touched by the personal apology she received from Cox.
The original version of the bill 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. On Tuesday, the committee voted to favorably recommend an edited version of the bill that defines conversion therapy as therapy that claims to "result in a complete and permanent reversal" of a client's sexual orientation. The edited version focuses on physically abusive techniques like electric shock therapy and removes "gender identity" from the definition because legislators felt the issues surrounding transgenderism, including sex change procedures, were too different to be lumped in with efforts to change a child's sexual orientation.
Following the governor's decision to support the substitute bill, 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 suicide prevention task force.
"Governor, you turned your back on LGBTQ youth and the medical and mental health establishment," Williams wrote in his resignation letter. "By endorsing Rep. Lisonbee's hostile substitute, you effectively cast your lot with a band of discredited and dangerous conversion therapists."
Herbert responded with a personal letter to Troy, saying, "I know these are difficult and emotional issues, but I am, and have been, striving to learn and better understand these issues in order to help achieve the best policy to protect and support Utah's children."
On Friday, Herbert's deputy chief of staff over communications and policy sent a statement to the Deseret News that said, "One thing we have learned is that trying to crystalize discrete policy positions on consequential issues during the fluidity of legislative debate can lead to misunderstanding and raw feelings. Consequently, we are not offering 'a position' until we have taken the time to deliberate carefully with experts, with those directly affected, and with lawmakers to craft good policy that ends abusive therapeutic practice in Utah."