Metro Weekly

Equality Utah head blasts Gov. Gary Herbert for support of “hostile takeover” of conversion therapy bill

Troy Williams says he won't serve as "window dressing" for a bill allowing some forms of conversion therapy to continue

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — Photo: Facebook

The head of the LGBTQ group Equality Utah is blasting Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for supporting amendments that radically altered the content of a bill that was supposed to protect LGBTQ youth from being subjected to conversion therapy.

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, announced last Wednesday that he was resigning from Herbert’s Youth Suicide Task Force in protest of change to a proposed bill to ban conversion therapy, which advocates say is harmful to LGBTQ-identifying youth.

Those changes including removing protections for “gender identity” from the bill’s language regarding conversion therapy, and only explicitly banning those forms of conversion therapy that cause physical pain or distress, such as forced vomiting or electroshock therapy. But the bill would continue to allow therapists to engage in “talk therapy” with LGBTQ youth struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, reports The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Republicans who proposed the amended version, Reps. Karianne Lisonbee (R-Clearfield) and Brady Brammer (R-Highland), claimed they had Herbert’s blessing to move forward with those changes. In response to those changes, the Republican-dominated committee approved the amended bill on Mar. 5 by an 8-4 vote. 

But advocates, including Williams and chief sponsor Rep. Craig Hall (R-West Valley), say that those changes adopt a false definition of conversion therapy that would allow therapists to continue engaging in the practice by adhering to the letter, but not the spirit of the law.

“I know therapists who would then say, ‘I don’t practice conversion therapy by the law.’ And yet they would o ahead and practice conversion therapy,” Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, a Provo-based therapist who supported the original bill, said at a news conference after the bill was altered. 

Williams didn’t hold back during that press conference, accusing Herbert — who had previously indicated he supported the bill and had even called conversion therapy “barbaric” — and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee of “abandon[ing] LGBT kids today in favor, to protect conversion therapists,” reports Salt Lake City-based news station Fox13.

The following day, in his resignation letter to Herbert, Williams called the amending of the bill a “hostile takeover” and said that governor’s support for the changes made it “clear you have no interest in keeping your promise, nor are you interested in the plight of LGBTQ youth.”

“I will not be window dressing to provide the Task Force cover. If you change your mind and wish to seriously engage the LGBTQ community, you know where to find me,” Williams wrote.

Taryn Hiatt, of the Utah chapter the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also resigned from the governor’s task force in protest of the amended bill.

Herbert wrote letters to Williams and Hiatt saying he was sorry to learn of their resignations and valued their expertise on the issue of youth suicide.

“I am anxious to ensure that these precious youth — of limitless potential and boundless worth — are loved and accepted for who they are,” the governor wrote. “Our shared goal of reducing teen suicide should remain our primary focus and objective.”

He also argued that teens should have access to “trusted professionals” with whom they can openly discuss their thoughts and feelings, echoing rhetoric peddled by proponents of conversion therapy who claim that banning the practice constitutes an infringement on a therapist’s free speech rights. Herbert also said it was important to “protect the rights of parents in counseling with their children in these sensitive matters,” echoing another trope pushed by conversion therapy supporters.

Herbert also extended an invitation to Williams and Hiatt to meet with him to discuss the issue further.

Equality Utah’s Troy Williams (left, at podium) speaks about the conversion therapy bill. – Photo: Equality Utah, via Facebook.

Hall, as the chief House sponsor of the legislation, has said he can’t support the bill in its current form and doesn’t see a way forward this session.

“We knew that it would be a little bit of an uphill battle with this topic,” Hall said. “It’s a sensitive issue. A lot of people have really strong personal opinions about it, and that’s fine.”

The whole episode is disappointing to LGBTQ advocates, who had been optimistic about passage after Herbert initially seemed to support banning conversion therapy and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a neutral position on the legislation, a huge victory in a state with a large Mormon population, where the LDS church exerts a great deal of influence over lawmakers.

Williams has vowed that Equality Utah will continue to push for the bill’s passage in subsequent legislative sessions until the original version passes. He thanked Hall and Senate sponsor Dan McCay (R-Riverton) for their support in a tweet, saying both men “truly care for LGBTQ Utahns.”

Lisonbee, one of the lawmakers who proposed the amendments to the conversion therapy bill, has since claimed she and her family are facing an “onslaught of vitriol, the likes of which I have never seen.”

In a Monday email to her fellow House colleagues, Lisonbee apologized for any “tension I have brought to our body,” and said she never intended to cause anyone pain, according to the Tribune.

Lisonbee also came under fire after the Associated Press reported on comments she posted to Facebook in 2013 implying she supports the practice.

In one post, Lisonbee wondered whether it was “possible that living a homosexual lifestyle may cause individuals to choose to commit suicide?” She also said that electroshock therapy, while horrifying shouldn’t be considered torture on subjects who willingly submit to that form of conversion therapy.

She added that people have “successfully overcome” what she called “unwanted same-sex attraction,” and that such therapy should be available to those who want it.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee – Photo: Utah House of Representatives.

Lisonbee said she’s been alarmed by the “vile messages” she’s received in the past week, writing: “On Friday, I was informed by Law Enforcement that a group of people are coming to protest in front of my house tomorrow. I was encouraged to either secure my family inside the house or take my children and leave town.”

Equality Utah has since condemned the attacks against Lisonbee and her family, issuing a statement saying it rejects “all acts of violence and intimidation.”

“Our democracy cannot function unless our personal safety and our political expression are protected,” the statement read.

Lisonbee insists that her past social media posts did not influence her work on the conversion therapy bill. Rather, she says, she thought the language was overly broad and too vague, and she wanted to amend the language to ensure that the bill would be able to pass the conservative legislature.

“The legislative process is rarely all or nothing,” she wrote in her letter to colleagues. “The idea that there is only one way to prohibit a bad practice is not only naive, it is patently false.”

But even though he condemns the attacks against her, Williams does not seem ready to forgive Lisonbee for her actions, tweeting that she had “hijacked” the bill and that her past Facebook posts “speak volumes about her views toward LGBTQ Utahns.”

He also noted that Lisonbee collaborated with attorneys for pro-conversion therapy Alliance for Therapeutic Choice, which was previously known as the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, to draft the amendment to change the conversion therapy bill.

“It’s all repackaged & rebranded conversion therapy, folks,” Williams tweeted. “And it’s all #StillHappening.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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