June 28, 2019 at 6:15 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Utah governor takes action to regulate conversion therapy
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.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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