SALT LAKE CITY -- A group of college students organized a protest at the State Capitol Monday, calling on Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and leaders of the Utah House of Representatives to make public statements denouncing homophobia and transphobia.
The protest comes after a bill that would have banned the practice of using therapy to try to change a child's sexual orientation or gender identity was put on hold following disagreement on the definition of so-called "conversion therapy."
The protest was organized by three University of Utah students, Nathan Dalley, 19, Ermiya Fanaeian, 19 and Cody Craig, 23. Fanaeian and Craig stood in front of a group of about 20 individuals and announced that they had issued a letter addressed to the governor, lieutenant governor, Speaker of the House Brad Wilson and majority and minority leaders of the House, asking them to commit to enacting "effective legislation" to protect all LGBTQ Utahns during next year's legislative session and beyond. They also sent a letter to Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, asking her to formally apologize for proposing a substitute version of HB399 they felt would not protect LGBTQ youth and for making comments they felt were homophobic.
Lisonbee met briefly with the three organizers who later said Lisonbee did not apologize directly for her actions but expressed a willingness to continue the discussion.
Lisonbee said she had a respectful meeting with the youth and that she told them she regretted comments she made in the past and was sorry for the hurt she caused.
Last week, Lisonbee told the Deseret News that she was offended by claims that she does not care about LGBTQ youth, considering she was willing to run a bill that prohibited what she thinks are the most harmful forms of conversion therapy.
"I absolutely care," she said.
The protesters called special attention to the vulnerability of transgender youth and the fact that attempts to change a child's gender identity were excluded from the definition of conversion therapy in Lisonbee's bill. Legislators including Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, thought issues surrounding transgenderism, including sex change procedures, were too different to be lumped in with sexual orientation change efforts. Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to favorably recommend the substitute bill on March 5.
"House leadership must recognize the vulnerability of transgender Utahns, validate their humanity and right to basic freedoms, and support their livelihood with future legislative efforts," the young advocates wrote in the letters.
Dalley, who testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month about his own experience with conversion therapy as a minor and the trauma it caused, said he and other advocates are no longer calling for legislators to work on passing a bill this session.
"There's not enough time to properly process it, and I think it is for the best to gather more research, invest in making the bill better than it was and getting more public support for it," Dalley said.
On social media, the protest organizers initially called for Lisonbee's resignation but later retracted that demand. In 2013, Lisonbee posted comments on Facebook that seemed to indicate she thought living a homosexual lifestyle was associated with inherent "emotional, physical and mental" risks and might cause individuals to commit suicide.
"I also feel that therapy should be available to those who want to overcome an unwanted same-sex attraction," she wrote in one post.
In another post, she wrote that the use of electric shock therapy to try to change someone's sexual orientation is "horrifying to contemplate," but that it should not be considered "torture" in cases where participants volunteered for treatment.
In a statement she shared with Monday's protesters, Lisonbee said, "Obviously, many things have changed surrounding these issues and science has continued to inform. I regret making those comments. I am extremely sorry for any hurt my comments caused. Please know that I would never want to hurt anyone."
Chief of staff for the Utah House of Representatives, Greg Hartley, contacted the Deseret News at Lisonbee's request Monday.
Hartley said that since Lisonbee sought to address concerns about the definition of conversion therapy in HB399, she and her family have suffered "an onslaught of vitriol."
On Friday, law enforcement informed Lisonbee that a group of people would be coming to protest in front of her house over the weekend and recommended she secure her home or take her family and leave town, Hartley said. In the end, no protest occurred.
"Because of vile messages and posts, she decided to shut down her social media accounts and focus on the final week of this legislative session," said Hartley.
Gay rights advocacy group, Equality Utah, sent out a press release Monday encouraging advocates to take a peaceful approach.
"Equality Utah rejects all acts of violence and intimidation. Our democracy cannot function unless our personal safety and our political expression are protected," wrote executive director Troy Williams.
On Sunday, Dalley posted on Twitter saying, "We have decided we are no longer calling for Lisonbee's resignation."
Dalley told the Deseret News that he and the other organizers decided it was not realistic to ask Lisonbee to resign and that calling for her to do so was causing some people to not want to support Monday's demonstration.
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, the chief sponsor of the original conversion therapy ban bill said, "Although we are always excited to have people involved in the political process, it is never acceptable to threaten a public official regarding their political views."42 comments on this story
"Thank you to those who have expressed their agreements and disagreements in a respectful manner," Hall added.
Utah House Democrats were the first to respond to the protester's letter by sharing a statement on Twitter condemning "all forms of speech and practices that perpetuate prejudice, injustice, and hate, including conversion therapy."
The governor issued a letter to another group of young protestors last week in which he apologized for an "enormous misunderstanding" and invited the recipients to work with him on legislation to protect LGBTQ youth.