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SALT LAKE CITY — After legislation that would have banned conversion therapy in Utah was gutted on Capitol Hill earlier this year, the body overseeing Utah's most populous county is calling on the Utah Legislature to act.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the Salt Lake County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to revive and pass a law that would have prohibited therapy attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBT minors.
The Republican-controlled County Council passed the resolution with complete support, with all members on the council agreeing conversion therapy is a practice that should not happen in Utah. The resolution, though not legally binding, formalizes Salt Lake County's stance that children should be "protected" from conversion therapy by prohibiting licensed therapists from "subjecting minors to these harmful and discredited practices."
Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who has been openly gay since he was a teenager, brought forward the resolution, aiming to address an issue that affected him personally.
Bradshaw, a Democrat, said he was 17 when he moved from Idaho to Orem in the '90s, and he was still "coming to terms" with his sexuality at the time. It was then that the gruesome murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, rattled Bradshaw on a "very personal" level, he said.
At that time, Bradshaw said he was asked if he wanted therapy for his sexual orientation — "not in a malicious way," he told his fellow council members, but the person thought "perhaps it could help me with what I was dealing with."
"I made the decision to turn down that offer," Bradshaw said, crediting his family for not "forcing" him. "I often wonder how my life would be different had I undergone that," he said.
The county resolution acknowledges conversion therapy has been "disavowed" by the nation's leading medical and mental health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American College of Physicians, the American Medical Association and others.
Utah would have been the 16th state to ban conversion therapy, but the bill faltered after lawmakers altered the bill, including language that LGBT advocates said would not stop conversion therapy. The bill stalled, never seeing a vote on the House floor.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, told the council of times when "so-called conversion therapy fails to work, Utahns told us of their feelings of despair." He described how studies show conversion therapy is associated with increased rates of depression and suicide among minors.
"They felt that they had failed their therapist, failed their church, failed their families, and maybe even failed their God," Williams said. "That sense of failure and that lack of self-worth — that's the danger."
The resolution was met with some pushback from critics. Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, spoke against it, arguing the Utah Legislature did "deal with this" and "a lot of work was done to bring together a compromise bill."
She said the language included in the county's resolution and in the original bill would have a "chilling effect" on therapists.
Clifford Rosky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah who helped draft the original bill, dismissed Ruzicka's comments. He said the original bill was carefully drafted based off of other states' legislation and with input of the nation's leading therapy experts.
County Councilman Steve DeBry, a Republican, thanked Bradshaw for bringing forward the resolution.
"Thank you for reaching out … and educating me on conversion therapy and the appalling number of suicides," DeBry said. "That really grabbed me. … We have to do everything we can to save lives."
After Tuesday's vote, Rosky and Williams applauded the County Council for encouraging "life-saving" legislation.
"It's significant that we had a unanimous vote of support from both Democrats and Republicans," Williams said. "What we all share in common is the desire to help young people, to reduce the number of suicides. Utahns are kind and compassionate people, and this vote really represents our state at its best."
Williams said the Salt Lake County resolution will help encourage the Utah Legislature to pass a bill banning conversion therapy next year.
"We are going to pass legislation to protect kids from conversion therapy," he said. "It's just a matter of time."