Consumer protection laws may be next frontier in fight against "gay conversion" therapy

Attacking the discredited therapy as false advertising could be a powerful tactic against it

By Katie McDonough

Published February 13, 2014 3:45PM (EST)

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California and New Jersey currently have laws in place banning "conversion therapy," a discredited counseling program that claims to "cure" LGBTQ youth and adults of their sexual or gender identity; similar bans are being considered in Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.

But the battle against this pseudo-therapy is also playing out with the help of consumer protection laws, according to a New York Times editorial by writer Jacob Victor.

While legislative action is a powerful condemnation of the practice, the approach has its limits. Going after "gay conversion" practitioners for false advertising and fraudulent business practices may be more effective, according to Victor:

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.

State regulators also have the power to target therapists who don't abide by standards of professional conduct. "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," Victor notes.

The American Medical Association denounced so-called reparative therapies as lacking medical justification and representing a "serious threat" to patients' well-being, and several practitioners have been exposed for cheating their patients. While the legislative process of banning the practice is important and admirable, Victor makes a compelling case for why state regulators and consumer protection laws -- by targeting practitioners one by one -- may be the best way to "put these snake-oil salesmen out of business."

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti-lgbt Discrimination Gay Conversion Therapy Gay Rights Homophobia Lgbtq Rights Reparative Therapy