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Utah’s “conversion therapy” ban is a major tipping point for LGBTQ rights

Other conservative states, like Kentucky, could follow suit.

A Pride flag flies in front of the Historic Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.
George Frey/Getty Images

One of the nation’s most conservative states is the latest to take a stand in favor of LGBTQ equality.

Last Tuesday, Utah became the 19th state to ban “conversion therapy,” a widely discredited practice that attempts to “change” an individual’s LGBTQ identity. The term refers to a loosely defined set of treatments, ranging from extreme measures like electroshock intended to eradicate impure thoughts to beating a pillow effigy intended to stand in for the patient’s parents.

The law is the first of its kind in the nation. While states like California, New Mexico, Maine, and Illinois enacted regulations on conversion therapy by passing legislation — all aimed at youth under the age of 18 — Utah’s rule was enacted by the Psychologist Licensing Board.

When a bill to ban the practice stalled in the state legislature last year after lawmakers introduced amendments to remove protections for trans people, the bill’s original author disavowed the new version and Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams accused lawmakers of caving to the interests of “quack therapists.” In response, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asked the licensing board to intervene by adding conversion therapy to a list of practices termed “unprofessional conduct.”

The new rule only applies to mental health providers and other professional counselors licensed by the state; it does not regulate faith leaders and religious counselors or legal guardians acting on behalf of an individual.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints initially opposed the rule in an October press release — claiming it failed to “protect individual religious beliefs” — Mormon leaders reversed course the following month, endorsing the regulations. That stamp of approval was critical to the proposal’s passage: 60 percent of Utahns are members of the LDS faith, including nearly 90 percent of lawmakers.

Advocates working to ban conversion therapy across the United States believe Utah’s conversion therapy ban is a watershed moment for the movement. In addition to the ubiquitous presence of the Mormon Church in a state that can sometimes feel like a theocracy, conservatives control both houses of the Utah Legislature, as well as the governorship. No previous state that enacted a conversion therapy ban had to clear such high hurdles.

Williams thinks Utah is a sign that other Republican states are movable on the issue — so long as LGBTQ activists are willing to reach across the aisle. “I’ve seen it over and over again: When we can get our authentic stories in front of red-state lawmakers, hearts open, defenses drop, minds change, and laws follow,” he told Vox. “That’s the tried-and-true formula, no matter how conservative your state may be.”

The growing movement to ban conversion therapy

The nationwide campaign to ban conversion therapy is one of the fastest-growing political movements in US history.

Since California became the first state to outlaw the practice in 2012, more than 80 jurisdictions — whether cities, states, or counties — have taken steps to either restrict conversion therapy or ban it altogether. These include the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, where then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order last year after a legislative effort to outlaw conversion treatments was blocked by the conservative New Progressive Party.

Whereas the fight for same-sex marriage was a generations-long struggle, Mathew Shurka, co-founder of the advocacy group Born Perfect, believes the reason the anti-conversion therapy movement has picked up so much steam in such a short amount of time is the harm the practice causes. In 2019, the national suicide prevention organization the Trevor Project found that more than 42 percent of young people who have been subjected to orientation change attempts had attempted to take their own lives within the past year.

“Marriage equality wasn’t a life-or-death situation, where conversion therapy is for many people,” Shurka told Vox, noting that an estimated 700,000 youth and adults in the US are survivors of conversion therapy.

Although nearly every leading medical and mental health authority in the country — including the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association — has condemned conversion therapy, the majority of victories have been concentrated in the coastal states, areas of the country more politically predisposed to pro-LGBTQ+ legislation. Eight of the states that have banned the practice had Republican governors at the time, but the majority of those, including New Hampshire and Vermont, are either staunchly liberal or Democratic-leaning. Not a single state in the geographic South, the nation’s conservative stronghold, has enacted a statewide conversion therapy law.

That’s why Shurka, who spent five years in and out of conversion therapy clinics after coming out to his parents at 16, believes Utah is the “moment where the tide turns.” Just hours after Utah became the 19th state to enact a ban, he attended a hearing on a conversion therapy bill in Virginia — a former red state that voted for Barack Obama twice and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and says the newly signed rule was brought up “maybe seven times” during discussion. After the shock that the law was passed with the LDS Church’s approval wore off, he says viewpoints on the legislation quickly began to “change,” even among GOP lawmakers.

“The opinions of the people who are on the fence — for or against — viewed it differently,” he says. “I think that’s where we’re succeeding: How do we make sure that this is not a partisan issue?”

More Republican states could ban conversion therapy in 2020

As LGBTQ advocates advance conversion therapy bills across the country, activists have their eyes on a handful of conservative states during the current legislative session — including Kentucky and Georgia.

Kentucky stands out among the pack, where legislators are weighing a conversion therapy ban for the fourth time. But while in previous years, proposals to outlaw the practice were treated with a pat on the back and a polite shrug, supporters of LGBTQ rights have reason to hope the issue will finally get its first hearing in 2020. This year marks the first time a Republican has signed on to co-sponsor the legislation: state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr.

On paper, Kerr is an unlikely champion of LGBTQ rights. A former associate minister, she was raised in a Southern Baptist church in southwestern Kentucky and describes herself as “very unabashedly pro-life.” But after stumbling upon Boy Erased, the 2018 film adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir about surviving conversion therapy, while looking for something to watch on TV, she immediately texted a fellow Republican in the legislature and begged her to check out the movie. Soon after, Kerr introduced a bill to outlaw conversion therapy — the first pro-LGBTQ bill in the state’s history to be authored by a Republican.

Despite her partisan leanings, Kerr believes this issue transcends thornier, more divisive issues surrounding LGBTQ equality, such as a statewide nondiscrimination bill that has languished in the legislature for two decades. “Wherever people’s hearts and minds are, that really is separate from the issue of conversion therapy — which is torture,” she told Vox. “This is something that any person should feel is wrong.”

Tanner Mobley, an activist who has been pushing for a conversion therapy ban in Kentucky every year a bill has been introduced, says advocates have already seen “significant momentum” on the issue in 2020 — after what was already a groundbreaking session in 2019. Last year, advocates submitted the legislation with 20 co-sponsors in the House, which was about “five times” what they’d had previously. They also submitted it in the Senate for the first time, a milestone he credits to tireless educational efforts by local and national LGBTQ advocates.

Mobley believes that having a conservative build on that momentum by starting conversations with fellow Republicans has been a “game changer.”

“We know that a lot of Republicans in both the Senate and the House are supportive of the ban on conversion therapy, but they’re not willing to expend the social capital to do so because they live in very conservative districts and they’re worried about how their constituents are going to respond,” he says. “The more folks who are able to stand up and take a stand on this issue, the safer it makes for other Republicans to get on board as well.”

While Georgia has yet to see a Republican officially sign on to its conversion therapy ban, supporters of the legislation say they have witnessed opposition to a statewide ban dissipate in recent years. Democrat Matthew Wilson, the lead sponsor of Georgia’s bill in the state House, says conservative lawmakers haven’t framed it as a piece of LGBTQ+ rights legislation — which would make it dead on arrival in a state where Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the governorship, much like Utah. Instead, his colleagues have labeled it a “suicide prevention bill,” he says.

“The only pushback that I’ve gotten at all is from a single lawmaker who doesn’t believe transgender people are real,” Wilson told Vox. “Every other colleague looks at it as kind of a commonsense thing.”

At the time of publication, the Kentucky and Georgia bills are still being debated in committee and have yet to receive any kind of significant vote. It remains to be seen if they will, but Mobley remains hopeful that another victory for the conversion therapy movement would show Americans that conservative and Southern states aren’t “hopeless” when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

“I really feel that if we worked to pass the bill here in Kentucky, you would very quickly see other states follow suit, especially states like Florida and West Virginia,” he says. “We’ve proven that with having those difficult conversations and looking across the aisle, you are able to reach people, even if it takes some time.”