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Utah Gov. Apologizes to LGBTQ Youth for Watering Down Conversion Therapy Ban

Utah Governor Gary Herbert
Utah Governor Gary Herbert

Gov. Gary Herbert had endorsed the weakening of a proposed conversion therapy ban.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a written apology to young people who protested his endorsement of changes to a proposed conversion therapy ban -- changes that they said would actually support the discredited, harmful practice, designed to turn LGBTQ people straight or cisgender.

More than 30 protesters gathered in the hallway outside the Republican governor's office Thursday, and late in the afternoon Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox delivered a letter from Herbert, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. The letter said there had been "an enormous misunderstanding" over the legislation and that Herbert did not intend to harm LGBTQ youth. He said he would continue to work with Rep. Craig Hall, the bill's lead sponsor, to address conversion therapy.

The bill originally "would have prohibited state-licensed therapists from practices aimed at changing the sexual orientation or gender identity of a minor," according to the Tribune. But new language introduced by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee this week changed it to bar therapists from engaging in certain physically abusive practices or from promising that change to sexual orientation would be permanent. Lisonbee also removed language pertaining to gender identity.

LGBTQ advocates said that because of the revisions, the bill was no longer a ban on conversion therapy and could even be considered an endorsement of it. Hall, a Republican, also opposed the changes. "This bill, substitute 4, just to make it clear, will not prevent conversion therapy," he told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. But the committee approved it, and Herbert supported it as well. The governor said in his letter that there wasn't enough support to pass Hall's original bill in this session, so he backed Lisonbee's revision in order to make at least some progress. But opponents of conversion therapy didn't consider it progress.

The young people who joined in Thursday's protest welcomed Herbert's apology but said it was only a first step. "Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful that something happened," 19-year-old Amelia Damarjian, one of the first demonstrators to show up at Herbert's office, told the Tribune. "But ... we've just been getting a lot of platitudes, nice words, speeches for I don't know how many years. ... I think I'll need to see something more tangible to really have that level of trust."

Cox said that while the original legislation was being drafted, he and other supporters of the measure had spent a great deal of time negotiating with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to assure that the powerful church would remain neutral on the legislation. The LDS Church, also known as the Mormon Church, is generally opposed to LGBTQ rights. In focusing on the church, supporters of the ban neglected to get legislators on board with it, Cox said. "In retrospect, that was a mistake," he told the protesters.

The changes to the legislation led Troy Williams, executive director of LGBTQ group Equality Utah, to resign from Herbert's youth suicide task force, saying he would not be "window dressing" for an administration that wasn't really addressing the problems faced by young LGBTQ people. Utah has seen a rash of youth suicides in recent years, and some observers blame the Mormon Church's homophobic and transphobic dogma. Conversion therapy is also associated with an increased risk of suicide.

The issue of a conversion therapy ban is "essentially dead" for this legislative session, according to the Tribune, but Herbert, Cox, Hall, and others pledged to continue working on the matter. Williams said activists will bring it up "year after year after year" until a ban is passed.

Fifteen states ban the use of conversion therapy on minors, with New York being the latest to pass such a law. Numerous cities and counties have similar laws.

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