Civil rights group condemns gay conversion therapy
A leading civil-rights group issued a scathing report Wednesday on gay-to-straight "conversion therapy" and called for Congress to make the practice an act of criminal fraud.
The report, titled "Quacks" and published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, includes testimony and comments from former conversion-therapy supporters — including Alan Chambers, who shut down the Orlando-based Exodus International and its "pray-away-the-gay" ministry in 2013, issuing a profuse apology to those it had hurt. But he and others said the practice of attempting to "cure" homosexuality, though denounced, continues under the radar.
And in most places, including Florida, it is still legal.
"Conversion therapy has a long, sordid history of hurting people and validating anti-LGBT bigotry," said the report's author, law center Senior Fellow Mark Potok. "Modern-day conversion therapy is just the same old snake oil in a new bottle. They may not be using the extreme practices of the past, such as shock treatment or castration, but these 'therapists' have no legitimate scientific basis for their claims. They're quacks."
Heather Wilkie, director of the Orlando-based Zebra Coalition — which serves gay and transgender youth — said such therapy continues in Central Florida, though it is not blatantly advertised.
"We do know there are local faith communities that are [still] doing that work. It's usually not called conversion therapy — because at this point I think there has been enough awareness around that term that it has been condemned," she said. "So it's phrased like: 'This is what God would accept.' There are counselors that do not have licenses that are practicing that way."
The Southern Poverty Law Center report details discoveries from a recent lawsuit against a New Jersey-based group called JONAH, which initially stood for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. The law center, representing former clients of the group, won the case last summer after unveiling the bizarre methods of its unlicensed practitioners. One-on-one counseling required clients to strip naked and endure anti-gay slurs and group sessions required "cuddling" for long periods with other men, purportedly to teach "healthy touch."
David Dinielli, the law center's deputy legal director, said the discoveries prompted his organization to take a new approach to banning conversion therapy. Previous bans — including those passed in California, New Jersey, Oregon and Illinois — focused on sanctioning licensed mental-health therapists who practice such therapy.
"Conversion therapy, it turns out, is not just something offered by licensed psychologists and psychiatrists," he said. "Many of the most notorious and most dangerous practitioners operate without licenses and without any training at all. Some call themselves life coaches, some call themselves counselors. Many operate entirely outside the bounds of any state regulation and unencumbered by any code of ethics."
All major mental-health professional groups have gone on record against the practice, as has President Obama, particularly in the case of minors. But in Florida, a bill introduced last session to ban conversion therapy for minors died in committee, and a recent proposal to ban it for children in the state foster care system also stalled.
In New Jersey and Vermont, though, there has been bipartisan support for outlawing the practice for minors.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., working with the law center, introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, classifying for-profit conversion therapy as fraud. The bill currently has 78 co-sponsors, and last month a companion bill was filed in the U.S. Senate.
Lieu said he understood most parents who send their children to conversion therapy to be well-intentioned — if uninformed.
"I don't believe they're trying to actually do harm to their kids. They have a certain view of the world, and then that view is turned upside down by this LGBT status of their child," Lieu said. "And then someone comes in and says, 'Hey, we can help you.'"
Chambers, whose book, "My Exodus: From Fear to Grace," was published last fall, said he thinks there is widespread support for banning conversion therapy, at least for minors.
"And I think a ban is necessary," he said. "As I came to realize … it can be terribly dangerous to people. And while the practice is dying, I think we've had this all-out grasping to keep it alive. I think that's driven by fear."