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Proposed ban on LGBT conversion therapy getting pushback

March 1, 2019
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Joan Landes wears a mask at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2019 in a committee meeting regarding HB0399 which is prohibition of the practice of conversion therapy upon minors. (Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A proposal to ban gay conversion therapy for minors encountered pushback in conservative Utah on Friday as state lawmakers questioned whether it’s too restrictive for therapists talking about sexual orientation with young clients.

Supporters of the measure said it allows discussion about sexuality, as long as there’s no attempt to change orientation or gender identity. Conversion therapy has a history in Utah, including the use of now-outdated physical techniques like electroshock therapy, and is associated with higher rates of depression and suicide attempts, supporters said. 

“You provide neutral treatment, that’s all. It’s not a therapist’s role to pass judgment,” said Cliff Rosky, a University of Utah professor who helped draft the plan, which is similar to bans passed in 15 other states and the District of Columbia.

Still, lawmakers had concerns, and Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee said she wanted to be cautious with the proposal that’s drawn opposition from some Utah therapists.

“It is not a small step for us to take to say this speech, which is still protected even though it’s professional speech, is not allowed,” Republican Rep. Brady Brammer said.

A panel of lawmakers discussed the proposal but did not vote on it Friday, though Republican sponsor Rep. Craig Hall expected it to be heard again shortly.

Counselor Joan Landes is opposed to the bill and on Friday wore a piece of tape over her mouth with the word “silenced.” She deals with a number of clients who are “unhappy with some aspect of their same-sex attraction,” and she’s afraid that liability concerns would keep her from taking those clients, she said.

“What about the kids who want to make changes and we have to say, ‘Sorry, it’s hopeless.’?” Landes said.

Other therapists saw it differently.

Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen said she supports the ban and has seen people suffering after undergoing verbal conversion therapy. She helps clients explore their feelings about sexuality and how it affects their lives, and teaches skills to be healthy “without talking about what can or can’t be changed,” she said.

Supporters of the measure pushed back against Brammer’s proposal to remove the restrictions on verbal therapy and limit the ban to physical techniques. “Words are just as damaging to children as more physical methods,” Rosky said.

The proposal is sponsored by two GOP lawmakers and has been gaining momentum since the influential Mormon church said it would not oppose it. Gov. Gary Herbert has also endorsed it, Hall said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a welcoming stance to the LGBT community in recent years, though the faith remains opposed to marriage and sexual relations between people of the same gender. About two-thirds of residents and a large majority of lawmakers are members.

The measure would apply to state-licensed therapists, not religious leaders or parents, and would allow people to file a complaint against someone practicing conversion therapy.