SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A nationwide push to ban LGBTQ conversion therapy for minors looked like it could succeed in conservative Utah after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it wouldn’t stand in the way, but the effort ground to a halt this week.
Conversion therapy has a long history in Utah, and the legislation drew fierce opposition from people who said barring therapists from talking about changing someone’s sexual orientation would violate free-speech rights.
It was seen as a milestone when the state’s predominant faith announced it would not oppose the ban, considering past teachings that being gay could be “cured,” according to religion scholars. The church has condemned conversion therapy and taken a more welcoming stance to the LGBTQ community but remains opposed to gay marriage and sex.
The Utah effort got momentum amid a national campaign to ban the practice this year. Fifteen other states have passed laws, and advocates in Utah said it would help combat an alarming spike in youth suicide.
But eight Republican lawmakers in Utah approved changes this week that advocates said effectively gutted the ban. They would have allowed damaging practices aimed at changing kids’ gender identity, activists said.
Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee sponsored the changes and insisted she was looking for a compromise that would still protect LGBTQ kids. But activists say some of her Facebook comments revealed by The Associated Press indicate that she supports the debunked practice.
In 2013 comments reviewed by the AP and confirmed by two family members, Lisonbee wondered whether it was “possible that living a homosexual lifestyle may cause individuals to choose to commit suicide?”
She also wrote a 1970s-era experiment in Utah using electric shocks to change sexual orientation was horrifying but shouldn’t be considered torture on subjects who volunteered.
Lisonbee said people have “successfully overcome” what she called “unwanted same-sex attraction” and that such therapy should be available to others who want it.
Asked Thursday about the comments that have since been removed, Lisonbee didn’t disavow them but said they came in an occasionally heated debate between members of her family over a story about same-sex marriage and the faith widely known as the Mormon church.
“I repeatedly said my stance was love and compassion and not judgment,” she said.
Asked about the comment on suicide, she pointed to legislative testimony by a man who said he felt despondent about his attraction to other men until he underwent therapy that helped him meet and marry a woman.
Troy Williams with the gay rights group Equality Utah denounced the posts.
“She’s falsely suggesting that people take their lives because they are gay,” he said. “That is reckless and dangerous rhetoric that reveals her extreme homophobia.”
Lisonbee denied that allegation. She said conversion therapy is a “horrific practice” and pointed out that her version also would have banned electroshock therapy.
“My goal was to find something that could pass,” she said, adding that she’s now the target of angry messages.
But activists say therapists practicing conversion therapy generally don’t use outdated, painful techniques, and her revisions still would have allowed practices they do employ to try to change behavior and feelings.
“It’s much worse than doing nothing,” said Maria Olsen-Hiatt, 21, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after going through conversion therapy at age 14.
She came to the state Capitol on Thursday night to protest the ban’s defeat. Gov. Gary Herbert released a letter apologizing for supporting the changes, calling it “an enormous misunderstanding.”
Olsen-Hiatt said the outcome reveals a disconnect. While state leaders have reached out to gay teens as they work to prevent suicide, she said there’s still a widespread view in Utah that “LGBT existence is sinful.”
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