A bill to tweak Utah’s ban on conversion therapy for children and teens is now supported by LGBTQ advocates after a lawmaker agreed to make changes to its language.

A draft of HB228 would have loosened Utah’s 2020 ban on conversion therapy by stating “verbal or written communication by itself does not fall within the definition of conversion therapy.” Advocates including Equality Utah opposed that version of the bill, concerned it would allow “talk therapy” forms of conversion therapy for minors.

However, on Monday, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, announced he would be making changes to the bill to address Equality Utah’s concerns. As promised, Petersen proposed those changes during the bill’s public hearing Monday in front of the House Business and Labor Committee, which voted unanimously to endorse the bill and forward it to the full Utah House.

Utah becomes 19th state to ban conversion therapy for children
Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, speaks during the presentation of HB228, a bill loosening Utah’s conversion therapy ban during a committee meeting of the House Business and Labor Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

“I am happy to sponsor this important legislation which provides clarity for professionals while continuing to protect Utah’s LGBTQ+ youth,” Petersen said in a statement.

The new version of HB228 would continue to ban conversion therapy for minors in Utah by enshrining an already existing 2020 administrative rule in Utah code, while also clarifying language that created ambiguity and concerns for Utah therapists, counselors and professionals.

Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that’s intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“As a former counselor,” Petersen said the current occupational rule that took effect in 2020 has been “particularly concerning to me. I have spoken with former colleagues who stopped treating minors because of ambiguity in the DOPL rule and fear of reprisal if they were to say something nonaffirming to their minor patients.”

But Petersen said he’s also spoken with members of the LGBTQ+ community “who are grateful for the changes in HB228 because they wish their counselors would have been more inquisitive and curious during their therapy sessions.”

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, confirmed to the Deseret News on Monday that Equality Utah supported Petersen’s changes. In a prepared statement, Equality Utah thanked Petersen and all the other legislators involved “for being open to thoughtful conversation on this challenging topic. We’ve had important dialogue and have shared our concerns openly, and for that we are grateful.”

Equality Utah said the changes to the bill would continue “to prohibit the very dangerous practice of conversion therapy for minors, while providing greater clarification for Utah therapists, and accordingly, we support the advancement of HB228 as amended.”

Tarin Hiatt of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Troy Williams and Marina Lowe of Equality Utah, left to right, watch during a committee meeting of the House Business and Labor Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, was part of negotiations that led to Monday’s compromise.

“We appreciate Equality Utah and legislative sponsors working together to find common ground. We’ve encouraged these discussions and support this version of the bill,” Cox said in a statement Monday.

The bill received no public opposition in the committee hearing. It did, however, attract passionate support from speakers from a wide range of perspectives, including the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, therapists and parents of LGBTQ children.

Jessica Black, a clinical mental health counselor based in Bountiful, told lawmakers she didn’t support the previous version of the bill, but with the changes it’s now “appropriate” for both therapists and LGBTQ children. However, she said she does “worry” about therapists who aren’t properly educated on LGBTQ issues attempting to treat LGBTQ children.

Mike Ostermiller, a longtime Utah Capitol lobbyist, spoke in favor of the bill, noting it was perhaps the first time he’d ever testified for legislation while representing only himself and not a client.

“As a proud father of a queer daughter, this is a policy space that I have become passionate about,” Ostermiller said, thanking Petersen and other legislators for their work and for taking his input. “I’m not only supportive of it, I’m proud of it. Because somehow, lightning struck, and we managed to find a way to thread the needle of allowing legitimate therapists to perform legitimate therapy.”

Mike Ostermiller speaks during a committee meeting of the House Business and Labor Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Ostermiller continued, “But while reaffirming the fact that conversion therapy is illegal in the state of Utah, we are protecting our kids and more than that, most importantly, the Legislature is sending a message to LGBTQ kids throughout the state of Utah that they are not broken. That they are seen. That they’re understood. And that they do not need to be repaired, fixed, converted or restored in any way.”

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Goud Maragani, president of Log Cabin Republicans of Utah, a conservative LGBTQ advocacy group, also issued a statement in support of Petersen’s bill.

“We are supporting HB 228 because we believe it will allow health professionals to talk about all options with children suffering from gender dysphoria including the benefits of staying in your birth gender which include sexual function, fertility, and no need for a lifetime of hormones and multiple surgeries,” Maragani said. “It also will allow them to talk to children about how they may become comfortable over time in their birth gender and to introduce them to de-transitioners.”

Maragani added the “currently required treatment method of affirming a child’s chosen gender sends them on a one-way journey to transitioning once they identify as a gender other than their birth gender.”

“It is unclear how children and parents are supposed to make informed decisions with lifetime consequences when they are only being given one option for treatment,” Maragani continued. “All options, including talk therapy, will hopefully help children find their true, authentic selves.”

Gov. Gary Herbert endorses bill to ban conversion therapy in Utah. But some legislators disagree on definition
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, listens during a committee meeting of the House Business and Labor Standing Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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