Groundbreaking Complaint Asks FTC to Ban Conversion Therapy
Several LGBT groups have joined together to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that practitioners of so-called conversion therapy are guilty of consumer fraud, by falsely claiming they can change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The federal consumer fraud complaint was filed today against a Virginia-based group called People Can Change, which claims that sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through therapy and counseling. People Can Change offers counseling in pursuit of this goal, in addition to referrals to other organizations that claim to be able to "cure" someone of being LGBT.
This claim has been soundly debunked by every major medical and psychiatric health organization in the country, while the discredited practice has been outlawed for use on minors in California, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Oregon. Last year, the White House and top Obama administration officials came out against the so-called conversion therapy, which received renewed attention after the public suicide note of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who took her own life in Ohio in late 2014 after being subjected to what is sometimes called "reparative therapy" at the hands of a Christian counselor.
The federal complaint alleges that People Can Change — and all practitioners of what is also called "ex-gay" therapy — "defrauds consumers into believing that being LGBT is a mental illness or emotional defect that needs to be cured." The group's advertising of that false claim violates Section 5 of the FTC Act, which "prohibits unfair and deceptive practices," according to the complaint.
The claims that People Can Change makes, both explicitly in its marketing materials and implicitly throughout its advertising, have no basis in science, the complaint contends. At the same time, People Can Change consistently fails to disclose the side effects that have been proven to accompany such efforts to change an innate quality of oneself, including depression, substance abuse, decreased self-esteem, and increased risk of self-harm, including suicide. This deceptive campaign "Targets and exploits highly vulnerable groups, including LGBT youth, who already experience bias and rejection at alarming rates in society and their own homes," according to a press release issued today.
“Conversion therapy is abusive, harmful to children, and we urge the FTC to join our call to ban its practice once and for all," said HRC president Chad Griffin in a statement today. "This is dangerous junk science that uses fear and shame to tell young people the only way to find love and acceptance is by changing the very nature of who they are."
“Today, after decades of advocacy, the voices of conversion therapy survivors have carried all the way up to the highest levels of government," added attorney Samantha Ames, coordinator for the NCLR's #BornPerfect campaign, which aims to end conversion therapy in all 50 states. "This historic complaint is not only the first clear opportunity the Obama Administration has had to end these deadly practices for good, but, if investigated fully, could very well be the final nail in the coffin of the entire conversion therapy industry."
The tactic builds off an argument successfully employed in a New Jersey court last year, when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing for defrauding clients by claiming JONAH therapists could make gay people straight. After a judge determined that it was illegal for JONAH therapists to tell clients that being gay or transgender was a "mental disorder," a jury ordered the Jewish "ex-gay" group to pay $72,400 in damages to the former clients it defrauded.
The complaint also harkens back to a piece of federal legislation introduced last May by several California Democrats, asking the FTC to declare all efforts to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity to be categorically fraudulent. Last October, a federal government report called for an end to all efforts to change someone's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.