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Utah governor takes action to regulate conversion therapy

Herbert says practice seems ‘unethical’

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Gary Herbert, Utah, gay news, Washington Blade, Republican Party
Gary Herbert, Utah, gay news, Washington Blade, Republican Party
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a Utah board to review conversion therapy. (Photo public domain).

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has taken action that could lead to the regulation of “ex-gay” conversion therapy in a state with a history of widespread use of the discredited practice.

In a letter dated June 17 and made public Thursday, Herbert ordered the Utah’s Division of Occupational & Professional Licensing to establish rules to regulate psychological interventions with LGBT youth and prevent unethical practices.

“This needs to be done in an area that should be governed by the best available science rather than left unregulated or regulated in a manner that is colored by politics,” Herbert writes. “Specifically, I want the state to ethically regulate psychological interventions for minor children regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Herbert, a Republican, ordered the proposed rules to be available for public comment not later Sept. 16.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the impetus for the order was a failed attempt in the Utah state legislature to ban conversion therapy.

“It came very close to passing, it had bipartisan support, Gov. Herbert supported the bill,” Minter said.

But the law, Minster said, was “was basically sabotaged at the last minute” by the introduction of a substitute bill that “would have seriously gutted the protections.”

The new proposal, Minter said, would have “limited the protections only to so-called aversive therapies, which have meant virtually nothing because the overwhelming majority of conversion therapy is non-aversive, it’s talk therapy.”

Minter said Herbert “waffled publicly, and took some serious heat for that, as he should have” from Utah’s LGBT community.

“The aftermath of that experience left the LGBTQ community in Utah, I think, very distressed and upset, including upset with the governor because it was so baffling that was so originally so clear and supportive of the law that would have actually protected LGBT young people, and his waffling played a role in the legislation falling through,” Minter said.

According to the Daily Beast, a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for youth in Utah seemed to poised to pass in March. But a House committee instead passed the watered-down bill, which was later tabled without coming up a floor vote.

Meanwhile, conversion therapy for youth is banned in 18 states and D.C. The most recent additions are Maine and Colorado, which enacted laws against the practice just this year.

Minter said Herbert “did some soul-searching after that happened, and I think, wanted something positive to happen on this issue,” which led to the order.

“It was surprising to hear that, but having had the chance to digest it and to evaluate it, I think it’s very positive development, especially given the legislation falling through, which is so bitterly disappointing,” Minter said.

Utah has “a desperate, urgent” need for a conversion therapy ban, Minter said, because of the state’s history.

“If you’re going to point on state where conversion therapy has been absolutely rampant, it would be Utah,” Minter said,

Minter said he doesn’t have data to back up the prevalence of conversion therapy in Utah, but knows the practice is widespread in the state based on his past work.

“The very case I ever worked on 26 years ago was a 16-year-old lesbian from California who got shipped to a Utah treatment center, and over the years had a number of clients who had been in treatment facilities in Utah,” Minter said.

One prominent survivor of conversion therapy is Alex Cooper, a lesbian who grew up in a Mormon family was subjected to the practice in Utah as youth. Cooper later wrote a book, “Saving Alex,” which described her experience in detail, including being forced to stand against a wall wearing a backpack full of rocks for hours on end.

“Anyone who works in this field knows there a constant stream of young people who are being sent to Utah for those treatments,” Minter said.

The Mormon Church, Minter said, for a long time openly supported conversion therapy, but then definitely rejected it two years ago, calling it “abusive.” Earlier this year, the church declined to fight against the conversion therapy bill in the legislature.

Herbert in his letter described his personal discomfort with the idea of conversion therapy, although he refrained from making any conclusions.

“Since I am not a psychologist, I do not presume to understand precisely what inferences to draw from the psychological literature on this subject,” Herbert writes. “Nonetheless, I am particularly troubled by what I have learned about intervention using physical distress. In my understanding, such techniques would seem to be unethical, and, therefore, I do not understand why they would be part of professional practice.”

Anna Lehnardt, a Herbert spokesperson, said the order doesn’t have any preordained conclusion and “we don’t know what the rule making process will recommend.”

Minter, nonetheless said he’s “very confident” the order would lead to regulations against conversion therapy in Utah.

“There is no disagreement within the mental health community about this,” Minter said. “It’s unanimous view of every single leading mental health organization in the country that subjecting minors to conversion therapy is extremely dangerous.”

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Colorado

Five transgender, nonbinary ICE detainees allege mistreatment at Colo. detention center

Advocacy groups filed complaint with federal officials on April 9

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(Photo courtesy of GEO Group)

Five transgender and nonbinary people who are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a privately-run detention center in Colorado say they continue to suffer mistreatment.

The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the National Immigration Project and the American Immigration Council on April 9 filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Offices for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Immigration Detention Ombudsman and Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility on behalf of the detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver.

Charlotte, one of the five complainants, says she spends up to 23 hours a day in her room. 

She says in the complaint that a psychiatrist has prescribed her medications for anxiety and depression, but “is in the dark about her actual diagnoses because they were not explained to her.” Myriah and Elsa allege they do not have regular access to hormones and other related health care.

Omar, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, in the complaint alleges they would “start hormone replacement therapy if they could be assured that they would not be placed in solitary confinement.” Other detainees in the complaint allege staff have also threatened to place them in isolation.

“They have been told repeatedly that, if they started therapy, they would be placed in ‘protective custody’ (solitary confinement) because the Aurora facility has no nonbinary or men’s transgender housing unit,” reads the complaint. “This is so, despite other trans men having been detained in Aurora in the past, so Omar is very likely receiving misinformation that is preventing them from accessing the treatment they require.”

Omar further alleges staffers told them upon their arrival that “they had to have a ‘boy part’ (meaning a penis) to be assigned to” the housing unit in which other trans people live. Other complainants say staff have also subjected them to degrading comments and other mistreatment because of their gender identity. 

“Victoria, Charlotte and Myriah are all apprehensive about a specific female guard who is assigned to the housing unit for transgender women at Aurora,” reads the complaint. “Victoria has experienced this guard peering at her through the glass on the door of her form. Charlotte, Myriah and the other women in her dorm experienced the same guard making fun of them after they complained that she had confiscated all of their personal hygiene products, like their toothbrushes and toothpaste, and replaced them with menstrual pads and tampons, which she knows they do not need.”

“She said something to them like, ‘If you were real women, you would need these things,'” reads the complaint. “The same guard told them that they had to ask her for their personal hygiene products when they wanted to use them, stripping them of their most basic agency.”

Victoria, who has been in ICE custody for more than two years, also says she does not have regular access to hormones. Victoria further claims poor food, lack of access to exercise and stress and anxiety because of her prolonged detention has caused has made her health deteriorate.

The GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.

Advocates for years have complained about the conditions for trans and nonbinary people in ICE custody and have demanded the agency release all of them.

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV, on May 25, 2018, died in ICE custody in New Mexico. Her family in 2020 sued the federal government and the five private companies who were responsible for her care.

Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans Salvadoran woman, on June 1, 2019, passed away at a Texas hospital four days after her release from ICE custody. Kelly González Aguilar, a trans Honduran woman, had been in ICE custody for more than two years until her release from the Aurora Contract Detention Center on July 14, 2020.

ICE spokesperson Steve Kotecki on Friday told the Blade there were 10 “self-identified transgender detainees” at the Aurora Contract Detention Center on April 11. The facility’s “transgendered units” can accommodate up to 87 trans detainees. 

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments,” said Kotecki. “ICE regularly reviews each case involving self-identified transgender noncitizens and determines on a case-by-case basis whether detention is warranted.”

The complaint, however, states this memo does not go far enough to protect trans and nonbinary detainees.

“ICE’s 2015 guidance has some significant flaws,” it reads. “It fails to provide meaningful remedies for policy violations. It does not acknowledge the challenges that nonbinary people face when imprisoned by ICE and the lack of such guidance explains why the needs of nonbinary people are largely misunderstood and unmet.”

“Further, the language used to describe people who are TNB is not inclusive and does not reflect terminology adopted by the community it is meant to describe,” adds the complaint. “Although this list is not exhaustive, it addresses some of the primary concerns voiced by the complaints.”

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The White House

Francisco Ruiz appointed director of White House Office of National AIDS Policy

Former CDC official is first Latino to run office

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Francisco Ruiz, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. (Photo public domain)

Francisco Ruiz’s appointment as the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy has elicited widespread acknowledgment across various sectors.

Ruiz, a distinguished figure in public health with a history of collaboration and strategic partnerships, assumes the role as the first-ever Latino to serve as ONAP’s director, underscoring a commitment to diversity and inclusivity in addressing public health challenges.

In response to his appointment, Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden underscored the Biden-Harris administration’s steadfast commitment to ending the HIV epidemic and enhancing the quality of life for people living with HIV. Ruiz himself acknowledged this sentiment, emphasizing that accelerating efforts to combat the HIV epidemic and improve the well-being of those affected remain a paramount public health priority for the White House.

Previously serving at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ruiz played a pivotal role in advancing national HIV prevention campaigns, particularly contributing to the goals of the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. Initiative. His experience in fostering strategic partnerships and ensuring sensitive prevention messaging has been noted as instrumental in reaching diverse communities across the country and in U.S. territories.

Ruiz in his new role will be tasked with accelerating efforts to end the HIV epidemic and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV. 

Guillermo Chacón, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS and founder of the Hispanic Health Network, expressed confidence in Ruiz’s ability to advance the national strategy to end the HIV epidemic.

“Mr. Ruiz is a respected public health leader and a fitting choice to ensure that the Biden-Harris administration meets the goal of ending the HIV epidemic in the United States and U.S. Territories,” said Chacón.

“Francisco Ruiz’s appointment signifies a renewed focus on addressing health disparities and promoting health equity, particularly for historically marginalized and underserved communities,” he added. “As a person living with HIV and the son of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz brings personal insight and professional expertise to his new role, ensuring that strategies to combat HIV/AIDS are scientifically grounded and connected with the experiences of those most affected.”

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Federal Government

FDA plans to lift ban on gay, bisexual sperm donors

Ban has been in place since 2005

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(Los Angeles Blade graphic)

The Food and Drug Administration is planning to lift its ban on sperm donations from men who have sex with men, according to a report in the Wall Street JournalThe report also says the FDA would simultaneously lift the ban on donations of other tissues and organs from gay and bisexual men.

The Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FDA could put out a draft of the new policy for public comment by the summer, with a final rule in place by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the FDA would not confirm the Wall Street Journal story, but acknowledged that, “the FDA routinely reviews approaches regarding donor screening and testing for donors of human cells, tissues and cellular and tissue-based products (HCT/Ps) to determine what changes, if any, are appropriate based on technological and evolving scientific knowledge.” 

The FDA imposed the sperm donation ban on men who have sex with men in 2005, as part of an expansion on existing prohibitions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men which were meant to mitigate the risk that HIV could be spread through donations.

The policies stemmed from an erroneous belief that gay men were more likely to carry HIV, regardless of their individual behaviors and risk factors.

Last year, the FDA finally ended the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, which had been in place since the early days of the AIDS crisis. The FDA now requires that blood donors are screened based on individual behaviors in a gender-neutral manner, in addition to the donations themselves being tested for HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.

Alice Ruby, executive director of the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley, says the lifting of the blood ban should provide a template for ending the sperm ban.

“I’m hoping it’s similar to the blood donation screening, where it’s based on behaviour, rather than being part of a population,” she says. “We test donors repeatedly for HIV as required by the FDA.”

The Sperm Bank of California has served many lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and Ruby says that she’s often told her clients would like a queer donor, to ensure that the biological father won’t be someone who disapproves of queer families. The ban removes that choice from would-be mothers.

The Sperm Bank of California has been opposed to the gay sperm donation ban since the policy was first proposed 20 years ago and has advocated in tandem with the National Center for Lesbian Rights for the policy to be scrapped.

“People are pretty unaware that the ban exists. I think there’s a lot of gay men who would be happy to contribute in this way, especially since a large number of people using sperm donation are LGBT couples and single people,” Ruby says.

Sperm banks across the country have been experiencing shortages of donor sperm, especially from donors of color. Opening the donor pool to gay and bi men could help ease the shortage. Ruby has told the Blade that the Sperm Bank of California has had to turn away gay and bi donors every week, up to 400 men in a single year.

When the FDA releases its draft policy around sperm donation, there will be a public comment period before the regulation is made final. Ruby says anyone interested opening up sperm donation to gay and bisexual men should submit a comment to support the change.

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