The Hill: Lieu and Dinielli: Time to put an end to ‘conversion therapy’

March 8, 2016
Opinion: Op-Eds 

Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to investigate the organization People Can Change.

People Can Change engages in “conversion therapy,” a practice that falsely purports to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The Virginia-based group claims that its webinars, weekend-long events and group coaching sessions diminish or eliminate homosexual attractions and thus allow participants to lead more peaceful and happier lives.

This form of quackery, rooted in the idea that gay people are mentally ill and need to be “cured,” has been thoroughly discredited by the medical and mental health establishments. Instead, there are countless stories demonstrating that the practice has many harmful side effects, including depression, suicidal thoughts and family alienation. 

It is clear that conversion therapy is not a service aimed at helping people  — it’s fraud.

Last year, in a first-of its kind lawsuit in New Jersey, a group of young gay men represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in court bravely recounted their bizarre and harmful experiences. 

They testified about sessions involving group nudity, intimate touching and prolonged cuddling with male counselors. One young man, after being told his mother was to blame for his sexual orientation, was instructed to violently beat a pillow — representing his mother — with a tennis racket. He did so until his hands were bloody.

A psychologist who examined conversion therapy as part of an American Psychological Association task force testified at the trial that such therapy is “worse than snake oil” and that it sometimes veers into the realm of sexual abuse.

In a resounding verdict, the jury found that a New Jersey group called Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) had committed fraud and engaged in unconscionable commercial practices when peddling its bogus therapy. The court ordered in December 2015 that JONAH must shut down for good.

The recent complaint by the SPLC, Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Lesbian Rights similarly demonstrates the fraudulent nature of conversion therapy. In the claim, the groups appeal to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive business practices. 

The groups also point to People Can Change’s advertisements, which have no basis in science and specifically target vulnerable individuals. The “services” provided by for-profit conversion therapists, like those at People Can Change, certainly fit the definition of unfair and deceptive.  

Both the recent FTC complaint and JONAH case illuminate how consumer fraud protections can be used to combat conversion therapy. To protect more Americans from this harmful practice, we believe there is need for a federal ban as well.

That is why last year in Congress, we introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act to establish the first federal ban on conversion therapy. The legislation provides congressional recognition that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender cannot be and does not need to be “cured.” 

Further, it classifies for-profit conversion therapy as fraud under the trade act and prohibits advertising that claims a conversion practitioner can successfully change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The overwhelming majority of conversion therapists operate on a for-profit basis. Classifying conversion therapy as fraud is an effective way to combat these deceptive practitioners and is constitutionally sound. Additionally, the fraud classification offers multiple avenues for enforcement. While the FTC may enforce the bill at its own discretion, private citizens may also bring civil lawsuits against practitioners, further strengthening the ban.

There is no doubt that such legislation is warranted. Nearly all of the mainstream medical and mental health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have denounced conversion therapy.

For far too, long conversion “therapists” have profited off of the fraud that is conversion therapy. The FTC must take action by investigating People Can Change and other practitioners. Congress, with support from both sides of the aisle, must also pass a federal ban on conversion therapy.

It’s time to stop the lies and protect our fellow Americans.