‘It simply will save lives.’ Advocates hail Utah’s conversion therapy ban, brace for anti-LGBTQ bills in the legislature

SALT LAKE CITY -- Advocates for the LGBTQ community are praising a new administrative rule that bans the practice of conversion therapy, making Utah the latest -- and arguably, the most conservative state to do so.

The rule was to go into effect on Wednesday. But as FOX 13 first reported, Governor Gary Herbert had it implemented on Tuesday night. Utah is the 19th state to ban the widely discredited practice of attempting to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity.

"It will simply save lives," said Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, the sponsor of the original conversion therapy ban in the Utah State Legislature.

Troy Williams of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Utah praised the governor for making it happen.

"He saw how polarizing this was becoming and he made a decision to allow science to prevail over politics," Williams said at a news conference Wednesday. "He kept his word to the LGBTQ community and we are deeply grateful to him."

A conversion therapy ban was introduced in the Utah State Legislature last year as a way to address Utah's high youth suicide rate. But social conservatives modified it to the point that the bill's own sponsor couldn't support it. That sparked a number of youth who identify as LGBTQ to protest outside the governor's office. Gov. Herbert apologized to them over how the bill was handled in the legislature, and then directed Utah's Department of Commerce to pursue an administrative rule. It has the same effect as law, but bypasses the legislature.

Public comment on the rule was overwhelmingly in support of the rule, but it didn't go forward after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful influence on Capitol Hill, raised concerns about religious freedom and parental rights. The governor then crafted a deal between the Church, LGBTQ rights groups, suicide prevention advocates and legislative leadership.

Nathan Dalley, who went through conversion therapy and still has friends undergoing the practice, said he believes the rule tells them "they are worth being with us and belonging just as they are."

"I believe that this bill communicates that to youth that are vulnerable to this practice and that it protects them from the harms I have undergone," he said. "Some of the worst days of my life."

The rule only applies to minors, and therapists found practicing conversion therapy on them could potentially lose their license under Utah's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

Rep. Hall said he did not believe his colleagues in the legislature would attempt to modify the rule in the 2020 session that starts next week.

"I hope not. We would hope there would not be an attempt to bring back conversion therapy into the state of Utah," he told FOX 13.

Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said the rule it violates parental rights on how to provide therapies for children about sexual orientation and gender identity. She said there was some discussion about a potential legal challenge or modifying the rule in the legislature.

"It’s a very sad day for Utah families," she said Wednesday. "This violates parental rights."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Herbert said he would oppose any effort to modify or repeal the conversion therapy ban.

But Equality Utah is bracing for a series of bills that could be coming dealing with the transgender community. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, is considering a bill that would restrict hormone therapies and surgeries for transgender-identifying youth.

"I am in the process of gathering information from all stake holders and have had a number of meetings with advocates on all sides of this issue. Any policy I introduce will be based on best practices that provide the most protection for our youth," he said in a text message to FOX 13.

The Utah Eagle Forum is supportive of Rep. Daw's bill, and another being planned that would restrict transgender athletes in schools.

"They can’t even drink alcohol, but they can have puberty blockers?" said Ruzicka.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, told FOX 13 he is considering a bill that would set some rules on transgender athletes by creating a statewide policy, instead of leaving it district by district.

"We're trying to make it so it's fair. So exactly how we define this is unclear. We want people with similar physical capabilities competing with similar physical capabilities. Men versus women, that's just generally not fair," he said.

Asked if his bill is anti-transgender, he replied: "This is not about gender, it's about fairness."

Rep. Robertson said he anticipates it could face a legal action, but he expressed a willingness to meet with LGBTQ groups as the bill is drafted.

Transgender rights activists said they are watching these bills with concern.

"To us, it’s still hateful bills that try to erase the transgender community. They don’t want us to have health care, they don’t want us to participate in sports, they don’t want us to get the gender marker changes we want on our birth certificates," Sue Robbins with Equality Utah said Wednesday. "It’s basically trying to erase us out of existence."

In a recent interview with FOX 13, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said they would have to see how far the bills advance in the legislative session.

"There’s some tricky issues here. We care about individuals, we also care about parental rights and kids," said Speaker Wilson. "So these are some of the trickiest issues we deal with here and we just kind of have to let the process work through and see where we end up."

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