Utah, one of the more conservative states in the nation, became the 19th state to ban the practice of conversion therapy. Governor Gary Herbert signed it into law in late January. Utah joins the ranks of 12 other states and all six New England states with New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine passing laws just last year.
Other states have bans in certain municipalities but lack a comprehensive, state-wide protection for the LGBTQ community.
Utah’s ban comes with the approval of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon Church, which disagreed with the stipulations of an earlier version of the bill.
In a released statement, Herbert, who like two thirds of the state is Mormon, said a lot of time and effort went into ensuring the revised ruling found common ground for all involved parties.
“I have learned much through this process,” he said. “The stories of youth who have endured these so-called therapies are heart rending, and I’m grateful that we have found a way forward that will ban conversion therapy forever in our state.”
The church claimed the bill would have prevented therapists from discussing strategies for avoiding same-sex intimacy for those that wanted to adhere to the church’s teachings. But this revised ruling doesn’t apply to clergy members or other religious counselors or family members who are therapists.
“Religious Counseling Isn’t Therapy”
“Religious counseling isn’t therapy,” said Shannon Minter, JD, legal counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). “When you use the term ‘counseling’ it has a different context. It’s more like a faith-based conversation.”
Conversion therapy often takes place with a youth minister or spiritual leader. But the law cannot interfere with religious organizations, only licensed mental health professionals.
Regardless of who administers the therapy, it has shown little evidence of success. The effects of it have been well documented by a number of mental health professionals and organizations.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association published a report that the “results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions” through sexual orientation change efforts.
Self-denial of sexual feelings may result, but true sexual orientation change does not take place. Despite this (stance), it still remains a legal practice in the other 31 states.
According to a recent report from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Law and Public Policy, nearly 700,000 LGBTQ adults have received conversion therapy. About 20,000 teenagers will undergo conversion therapy before they turn 18. Another 57,000 will go through the practice with a religious or spiritual adviser.
Fallout Can Have Detrimental Effects
“The fallout for conversion therapy can be extreme,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “It is a rejecting behavior that can put a client at odds with their family, faith, and community. When the therapies fail to deliver on the promise of change, severe depression and suicidality can be a result.”
Minter agreed, saying that when young people realize the therapy is not working, they internalize it and they feel like they failed. As a result, they lose all hope—and that can be lethal.
“Trying to force someone to change their sexual orientation is harmful,” he said. “The suicide rate is sobering. This is something we need to stop.”
Minter has worked closely on NCLR’s Born Perfect campaign, a survivor-led movement to pass laws to protect the LGBTQ community from conversion therapy with the help from legal advocates. With states passing laws against conversion therapy in just the past eight years, he said the momentum is strong.
“This is by far the most successful LGBTQ legislation happening today,” he said.
Techniques for conversion therapy, more widely termed SOGI but also referred to as “reparative therapy,” have been anything from trying to stop sexual thoughts by smacking the wrist with a rubber band to more severe methods like electric shock treatment.
The rates of suicide in LGBTQ youth who have endured conversion therapy is over eight times that of those who have not, according to a report from San Francisco State University. They are also about six times more likely to suffer from depression and three and a half times more likely to use illegal drugs and have a high risk of AIDS and other STDs.
In fact, the suicide rate was one of the biggest factors in passing the ban; Utah has the sixth highest in the nation.
“I’ve had survivors tell me their therapist claimed they don’t practice ‘conversion therapy,’ but then conduct classic SOGI change techniques. You will rarely find a therapist today who actually calls themselves a ‘conversion therapist’ because the term is profane to the mental health establishment,” said Williams. “So, conversion therapists evade and dodge, and use clever word play to obscure their dangerous efforts.”