Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ending "Gay Conversion" Therapy for Good

As noted yesterday, a former prominent "ex-gay" leader has joined the ranks of those former "ex-gays for pay" who have belatedly admitted that the claims of "curing" homosexuality are untrue and nothing more than a myth that the far right hate groups seek to keep alive for profit and political purposes.  Several states have pending legislation which would ban the practice for those under age 18.  Such a bill was introduced even here in Virginia only to be killed in the GOP controlled House of Delegates that is in some ways little more than an arm of the heinous theocrats at The Family Foundation.  An op-ed in the New York Times looks at additional methods beyond legislation to work towards completely ending this fraudulent and harmful type of "therapy."  Here are column excerpts:

THERAPY programs that purport to “convert” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids have caused immeasurable harm since they became prominent in the 1970s. Rigorous studies have shown again and again that efforts to change young people’s sexual orientation not only fail, but are also linked to suicidal behavior, depression, anxiety, drug use and risky sexual behavior. 

So it’s tempting to support the model of California and New Jersey, the first states to ban conversion therapy. Under their bans, a licensed therapist who tries to subject minors to such “treatment” can lose his license and face other penalties. Similar bills have been introduced in Massachusetts, New York and Ohio. 

Legislative condemnation is a powerful public statement. But if the goal is shutting down as many practitioners as possible, this strategy has its limitations. For one thing, it’s unlikely that conservative states, where conversion therapists are most active, will follow suit. More important, such bans are likely to lead to costly and time-consuming legal battles.

There is a more promising way to put pressure on, or even shut down, conversion programs: existing state laws that forbid businesses and professionals to engage in deceptive practices. 

Despite the nearly universal consensus — including the professional associations that represent America’s pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, school counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists — that “conversion” or “reparative” therapy is ineffective, harmful or both, its practitioners, many of them affiliated with religious groups, continue to advertise messages like “change is possible.” 

Under commercial law, this is the very definition of a deceptive trade practice. Victims could sue practitioners for damages in state courts. With support from the Southern Poverty Law Center, several former patients did just that in 2012, seeking damages under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act from an “ex-gay” group called Jonah (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing). The plaintiffs cited Jonah’s false promise that it could “cure” their homosexuality — for which it charged $100 per individual therapy session. Last July, a state judge refused Jonah’s request to throw out the case, which could soon go to trial. 

Litigation isn’t the only recourse for victims. State regulators are responsible for ensuring that therapists and other mental health professionals abide by standards of professional conduct. States like New York, Minnesota and California have laws that forbid state-licensed professionals from using deceptive practices; in New York, for example, such professionals may not use “advertising or soliciting that is false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading” or make claims that cannot be “substantiated by the licensee.” Violations can result in fines and the loss or suspension of one’s license.

While conversion therapists would have to be targeted one at a time, the cumulative effect could be powerful. Many of the remaining practitioners are affiliated with “ex-gay” organizations that provide training and educational materials. A handful of successful suits and regulatory crackdowns could destabilize this network by bankrupting these organizations, raising malpractice insurance rates for individual conversion therapists, and leaving practitioners to reconsider the value of persisting in practices that are deceptive under the law.

Parents confused or distressed about their children’s sexual orientation will continue to fall prey to counselors who either promise what they cannot deliver (turning kids straight) or, without scruples, try to profit from these families’ anxieties. Their practices are despicable, but litigation and regulatory action have more potential than new legislation, in the long run, to put these snake-oil salesmen out of business.

Wayne Besen and I have talked about this strategy for some years.  The big issue is getting plaintiffs to come forward who are willing to launch such lawsuits.  A few big verdicts and insurers will cease insuring these charlatans.

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