SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Should the practice of conversion therapy come to an end in Utah? Nearly 50 medical professionals, advocates, family members, concerned citizens, and former patients chimed in during a public comment meeting Thursday morning at the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
During the 2019 legislative session, Rep. Craig Hall sponsored House Bill 399, also known as the Prohibition of the Practice of Conversion Therapy for Minors. Amendments made to the bill outraged LGBTQ and youth advocates who said the changes created a weak definition for conversion therapy that therapists would be able to work around. The bill ultimately died in March after passing the House Judiciary Committee.
In June, Governor Herbert directed the Division’s executive director, Francine Giani to have the Psychologist Licensing Board ‘provide guidance, based on the best available science, for rules on the ethical and professional practice of psychology concerning interventions for minor children regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity,’ according to documents provided by the Division.
The Board declared, “It is our conclusion that practices intended to change sexual orientation or gender identity are not demonstrated to be effective, and are associated with harm and the risk of harm, including significant increases in depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts in minors. […] As such, it is our determination that psychologists participating in these practices are engaging in unprofessional conduct.”
As a result, the Division has filed a proposed amendment to two rules: R156-61 Psychologist Licensing Act Rule and R156-60 Mental Health Professional Practice Act Rule. The amendment would add language to define “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” and “gender identity change efforts.” It would also add conversion therapy practices to its definition of ‘unprofessional conduct.’
According to the Board, the Division has received 1,300 written and e-mailed comments from the public since the filing of its proposed rule amendment. Approximately 85 percent of those comments are in favor of it. Thursday morning, nearly 50 people showed up to Division’s public comment hearing to chime in.
Argument in Favor of the Rule Amendment
Mathew Shurka, co-founder of the Born Perfect organization traveled from New York to be part of Thursday’s hearing. Shurka calls himself a survivor, who went through conversion therapy from 16 to 21 years old.
“I came out to my dad when I was 16 years old. He initially told me he would love me no matter what. But the next day he freaked out about having a gay son,” he said. “He met one therapist who told him that there’s no such thing as homosexuality and anything that’s LGBTQ stems from trauma and if I can heal from that, I will naturally begin to experience an attraction for the opposite sex.”
But Shurka said he did not suffer from any trauma. His therapist then concluded that his homosexuality was because he had too many female role models in his life. For three years, Shurka said he was not allowed to speak to his mom and two sisters. Instead of being helpful, he said conversion therapy was harmful and detrimental to his life.
“I was constantly having anxiety and panic attacks. I contemplated suicide for three years and was in and out of the emergency room,” said Shurka.
Now, Shurka travels the country to testify and speak out in favor of legislation, rules, and ordinances for conversion therapy bans.
“What families in Utah don’t realize is how destructive conversion therapy is to their entire family,” he said. “We’re talking about the lives of individuals. We’re talking about the amount of suicide and families being broken up.”
Shurka along with Equality Utah also brought ex-gay conversion advocate McKrae Game from South Carolina to testify at Thursday’s hearing. Game led Hope for Wholeness, a conversion therapy organization for two decades. He recently gained national attention for coming out as a gay man in May and repudiating his practice.
“Simply encouraging people to oppress who they really are, their sexual orientation, how they think and feel, and trying to go in a completely different direction…it caused me harm and I know it has caused many other people harm,” said Game.
Argument in Opposition of the Rule Amendment
Stephen Done, member of the Protect All Teens foundation, also spoke up during the hearing. He shared his personal experience of having same-sex attractions throughout his life and searched for a way to understand them so he could decide what to do with them.
“I’m hearing all these stories about ‘If you’re gay, you can’t change. The only way you’re going to be happy is if you marry a man and pursue that lifestyle.’ But I didn’t want to leave my wife. I didn’t want to leave my kids. I love them,” he said.
He said he found a therapist as an adult, who helped him set boundaries, interpret his emotions as a result of trauma, and understand his feelings.
“My therapist didn’t force any agenda on me. He just helped me explore what I was feeling,” said Done. “What he helped me do was to differentiate the needs for affection and needs for connection with other people from sexual feelings.”
Done said he believes the current proposed amendments would make the rule too broad. He and other members of the Protect All Teens foundation have requested a revised version.
“If I went through this experience as a teen and this rule was already changed, it would have prevented me from receiving safe and helpful therapy,” he said. “I think this rule change will actually increase suicides because people who don’t want to act on their sexual attractions will not have a place to get help.”
The Next Step
The Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing will continue to accept written public comments until 5 p.m. on October 15th.
Meanwhile, the Division will review public comments given in Thursday’s meeting and decide whether to modify or pull the proposed rule amendments. If they pull it, there will be another public hearing. If they modify it, the earliest effective date of the changed rule will be October 22nd.
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