Utah has finally banned the discredited and harmful practice known as conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ minors, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday (January 22). The move makes Utah the 19th to formally adopt legislation to protect children from the practice, which has been denounced by most medical organizations and is defined by GLAAD as “any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
“It’s major,” Mathew Shurka, a survivor of conversion therapy and the co-founder and chief strategist of BornPerfect, a group that works to end conversion therapy nationwide, told MTV News.
Activists like Shurka hope that the move will lead other states to follow suit, according to the AP, given that Utah is one of the most conservative states to ban the practice so far. Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the AP that this ban has “really given people a lot of hope.” According to the UCLA Williams Institute, about 350,000 LGBTQ+ children nationwide have been subjected to the practice.
For his part, Shurka is heartened by the fact that opposition to conversion therapy is becoming a non-partisan issue. “If you look at the now 19 states, including Utah, eight of those governors [that] signed and passed those laws are Republican,” Shurka said, adding that Utah signing this measure into law is a “huge turning point.”
One of the original sponsors of the bill, HB0399, was Republican Representative Craig Hall; he said in a statement that the ruling will “truly save lives,” according to the AP.
Utah legislators first introduced HB0399 in February 2019 and went through several revisions before it was signed into law by Utah Republican Governor Gary Herbert. “The stories of youth who have endured these so-called therapies are heart rending, and I’m grateful that we have found a way forward that will ban conversion therapy forever in our state,” Herbert said in November 2019, according to The Hill. “I’m grateful to the many stakeholders who came to the table in good faith, with never-ending patience.”
The measure prohibits licensed mental health professionals from engaging in the practice but does not prohibit parents, clergy members, or religious counselors who are not acting “in the capacity of a health care professional.”
“People have freedom of speech and have their opinion,” Shurka explained. “But we're trying to keep the integrity of what it means to be a licensed professional.”
The vote came after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known also as the Mormon church or the LDS church, officially voiced support for the measure, the AP reported. Most of the Utah state legislature and about two-thirds of those living in the state are Mormon, so the church carries quite a bit of power here, according to the AP. In October 2019, the LDS church noted on their website that they’ve consistently opposed conversion therapy, adding that their “therapists do not practice it.”
But those announcements were deeply scrutinized, in part due to the church opposing a version of the bill that didn’t allow for religious exemptions, the Associated Press reported at the time. As a result, they pressured state legislators to rework the ban in order to allow therapists to continue counseling children about prioritizing their religion above their sexuality, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. This, they contend, is not conversion therapy, as their therapists do not “seek to ‘repair,’ ‘convert,’ or ‘change’ sexual orientation.”
Yet the Mormon church has a long history of homophobic policies. According to TIME, the LDS church has believed that sexuality could be changed for decades, influenced in part by a 1969 book, Miracle of Forgiveness, written by the church’s then-president. In it, he described LGBTQ+ sex as a “crime against nature” and argued that sexual orientation could be prayed away. Researches at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church, allegedly used conversion therapy tactics in the 1970s, TIME reported. Last year, they reversed a 2015 policy that banned the baptism of children whose parents were LGBTQ+, without prior approval from church leadership, according to the AP and TIME; the church still opposes same-sex marriage.
Still, the passage of HB0399 is giving hope to activists championing bans all over the country. “This is a hopeful day for Utah’s LGBTQ+ youth, and we’re grateful to the leadership of Equality Utah and others on the ground who have been working tirelessly to make this day a reality,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Now, we have to continue to push for laws and regulations in every state and jurisdiction in the United States, so that no youth will be forced to endure this dangerous practice anymore.”