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Utah Governor Orders State to 'Ethically Regulate' Conversion Therapy

Gary Herbert

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has directed the state’s Psychologist Licensing Board to “ethically regulate” the use of conversion therapy on minors.

The governor, a Republican in a largely conservative, majority Mormon state, released the letter Thursday, although it is dated June 17. He didn’t call for a ban on conversion therapy but expressed concern about the practice, which is rejected by every major mental health organization as both ineffective and harmful.

“I want the state to ethically regulate psychological interventions for minor children regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity,” he wrote. This will allow his administration to take action “to make a positive difference prior to the next legislative session,” he added. The board’s work also can guide future legislation, he noted. A bill to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors failed to pass in the state legislature this year.

“Since I am not a psychologist, I do not presume to understand precisely what inferences to draw from the psychological literature on this subject,” he explained. “Nonetheless, I am particularly troubled by what I have learned about interventions using physical distress. In my understanding, such techniques would seem to be unethical, and, therefore, I do not understand why they would be a part of professional practice. I am also very concerned about what I have learned regarding the lack of understanding many parents have concerning so-called ‘conversion therapy.’ I would like you to carefully consider how psychologists can guide and tutor family dynamics in situations where intervention is sought.”

Herbert asked the board to have the rules available for public comment by September 16. The Psychologist Licensing Board is one of four boards in the state that deal with licensing of mental health professionals, but he wanted it to take the lead and have the others address the issue after the Psychologist Licensing Board had finished its work, in order to avoid duplication of effort.

LGBTQ activists praised Herbert’s action. “When a state leader of Governor Herbert’s stature speaks out on this important issue, it educates millions of people,” Matthew Shurka, a conversion therapy survivor and cofounder of Born Perfect, a campaign to end the practice, said in a press release. “As a survivor, I know that Governor Herbert’s leadership on this issue will save lives.”

“This is a huge step forward for LGBTQ youth and their families in Utah,” added Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the organization behind Born Perfect. “Governor Herbert is setting a powerful example for other state leaders across the country about how to address the issue of conversion therapy and protect young people from this life-threatening practice.”

A recent study by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization focusing on LGBTQ youth, showed that the rate of suicide attempts was twice as high among those who had undergone conversion therapy than among those who had not.

Utah has seen a spike in suicide among young people in the past several years, with a rate of increase four times the national average since 2011. The data reflects all youth, but LGBTQ youth are known to be at heightened risk for suicide because of factors such as bullying, discrimination, and rejection by loved ones. Many activists have blamed the Utah spike on the strengthening of anti-LGBTQ policies in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known colloquially as the Mormon Church. About 60 percent of Utah residents are Mormon.

Eighteen states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and at least 50 cities and counties in the U.S. have banned the use of conversion therapy on minors. And Thursday saw the introduction in Congress of bills to classify conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice. Rep. Ted Lieu of California introduced the bill in the U.S. House, while Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Patty Murray of Washington State introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

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