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Gov. Herbert apologizes to LGBTQ Utahns after supporting substitute conversion therapy bill

By Jacob Klopfenstein, | Posted - Mar. 8, 2019 at 7:32 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — After a bill that would ban conversion therapy against minors stalled indefinitely this week in the Utah legislature, a member of the state’s LGBTQ community demanded an apology from Gov. Gary Herbert.

Amelia Damarjian got that apology Thursday, but she said she will continue demanding action on the issue from Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders.

“We’ll be back and we’ll keep coming back to the table every time,” she told Friday. “Eventually, we will get a bill passed because that’s kind of how the course of history works. Eventually, you know, justice happens, even if it’s painstakingly slow.”

Damarjian, along with a handful of others, staged a sit-in protest at the governor’s office at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday evening. The protest followed the downfall this week of HB399.

Momentum stalls on bill

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, passed through the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday on an 8-4 vote. But that was after the bill got replaced by a substitute version of the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield.

LGBTQ activists vehemently opposed Lisonbee’s substitute. And Hall refused to support his own bill after the substitute was implemented.

Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams quit the governor’s Youth Suicide Task Force Wednesday over the changes made to the bill and had some very strong words for Herbert in the process.

Herbert and Cox supported the Lisonbee substitute, though their representatives say they supported it in order to see legislation enacted on the issue this legislative session — not to hurt or offend the LGBTQ community.

Hall no longer plans to bring HB399 back for discussion or passage, according to Lisonbee.

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The sit-in at the capitol

Damarjian said the bill “gutted” the definition of conversion therapy and crucially left out protections for transgender youths.

“It wasn’t a secret that any of the advocates for this community were very upset with the Lisonbee substitution and didn’t want it,” she said.

Damarjian announced Thursday on Twitter she would go to the capitol and sit outside Herbert’s office until the governor apologized for supporting Lisonbee’s substitute. She was there for about four hours, she said.

After arriving there Thursday evening, Damarjian and a few other organizers had a meeting with staff members from Herbert’s and Cox’s offices, she said. Others gradually dropped in and out of the protest, with as many as 30 participating at various points, she said.

Then, several hours after Damarjian arrived, Cox came out of an office, sat down in a circle with the group and read to them an apology letter signed by Herbert.

“I realize there is much I do not understand about the issues that LGBTQ youth face every day,” Herbert wrote in the letter. “I also believe that you deserve to be heard. You deserve our help. And you deserve a future where... you feel safe, welcome, and loved in our state. My intention in supporting (Lisonbee’s) substitute was never to harm you. We have had an enormous misunderstanding, and I am sorry.”

Damarjian said Cox became emotional multiple times while reading the letter. Others there also let their emotions flow as they shared stories of their own personal experiences with conversion therapy, Damarjian said.

Apologies fall short

Damarjian, who knew Cox previously from corresponding with him on Twitter, said he apologized multiple times during the evening.

But it wasn’t enough, she said.

“I basically said that that was unacceptable to me and that there aren’t excuses because when Troy Williams said (Lisonbee’s legislation) wasn’t cool, they should have known to look into it further,” Damarjian said. “There’s no misunderstanding on my part. If there was a misunderstanding it was them not understanding the needs of the community.”

She demanded more answers from Cox and took him to task on the issue, she said.

Herbert’s chief of staff Paul Edwards, speaking on behalf of both Herbert and Cox, acknowledged Friday that there is a long way to go.

“One thing we have learned is that trying to crystalize discrete policy positions on consequential issues during the fluidity of legislative debate can lead to misunderstanding and raw feelings,” Edwards said in an emailed statement. “Consequently, we are not offering ‘a position’ until we have taken the time to deliberate carefully with experts, with those directly affected, and with lawmakers to craft good policy that ends abusive therapeutic practice in Utah."

Meanwhile, Lisonbee came under fire Friday over Facebook comments she made in 2013 in which she appeared to wonder if being homosexual could drive a person to suicide.

She has said that she does not want to “encourage somebody to engage with a client in these abusive types of therapies.”

But Lisonbee said legislators got feedback from health professionals and attorneys who told them the substitute was “clearer and more enforceable” than Hall’s original bill.

“Every Utah mental health professional I spoke with unequivocally stated that they do not practice conversion therapy or know anyone who does,” Lisonbee said in an email Wednesday. “They expressed concerns regarding the vague definition and troublesome syntactical problems in the original bill and felt that this language would have a chilling effect on therapists’ ability to respond appropriately to their client's self-identified assumptions and goals.”

Pushing for alternative solutions

Damarjian said she felt “hurt and betrayed” by Cox’s and Herbert’s support of the Lisonbee version.

Since a legislative solution is unlikely until next year, she said she and other LGBTQ activists will push for action from the governor through executive options. Those might include changes to the way the state health department licenses healthcare providers, or other options, she said.

“As a member of the LGBTQ community, I feel like you have to beg for scraps — especially in the state of Utah — and perform perfect politeness just to get anything,” Damarjian said. “I felt that we really did deserve to finally be heard, because this is a community that’s always asked to wait to be heard, and at a certain point it’s not fair to ask the people being hurt to be the bigger people.”

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