BY SAMANTHA AMES, ESQ. | In February 2012, Congressman Ted Lieu, then a California State Senator, introduced the first bill in the country to protect LGBTQ youth from licensed mental health professionals subjecting them to conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited practice of trying to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Just six months later, California made history and set off a cascade of similar bills across the country, catalyzing a movement that now includes litigation, federal legislation, administrative advocacy, public education, and #BornPerfect, a national campaign to end these practices by 2019.
But four years after that groundbreaking legislation, California is still home to a surprising number of conversion therapists. Some, like the infamous Dr. Joseph Nicolosi of the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Los Angeles, unabashedly violate the law by practicing on minors under 18. Others find a way around it by working with legal adults, hedging their language away from conversion therapy, moving out of state and conducting sessions over the phone or online, or practicing outside the context of a regulated state license. At every turn, the conversion therapy industry has shown a troubling disregard for the law.In 2012, NCLR helped draft and pass California’s Senate Bill 1172 and, later, intervened to help successfully defend its constitutionality before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court held that the legislature’s stated purpose to “protect … the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, and [to] protect … its minors against exposure to serious harms caused by” conversion therapy – relying on the “overwhelming consensus” in the medical and mental health communities that these treatments are ineffective and harmful – was, “without a doubt … a legitimate state interest.”
But laws like SB 1172 aren’t the only tools powerful enough to combat conversion therapy. In California,as in most states, all state-licensed professionals are required to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits them from practicing negligently; committing any dishonest, corrupt, or fraudulent act; functioning outside their field of competence; making false or misleading statements; or, perhaps most significantly, allowing personal problems in their own personality to interfere with their ability to practice objectively and ethically. Conversion therapists breach every one of these ethical duties when they claim they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity and endanger the health of every patient who comes to them seeking help.
Those continuing to practice in California also do so in violation of state and federal consumer fraud law. Last month, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Human Rights Campaign and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission requesting them to investigate an organization called People Can Change that operates “Journey into Manhood” camps across the country. The complaint went on to request that the FTC investigate the entire conversion therapy industry. State courts have already begun closing the doors of these operations under consumer fraud laws. It’s only a matter of time before practitioners in every jurisdiction are investigated and held to account for the blood on their hands.
At every opportunity, the conversion therapy industry—including many still practicing in California—has fought tooth and nail to keep its business profitable. But we will not stop fighting for the right of the most vulnerable in our community to exist free from the shaming and stigmatizing practices that tell them that the most core part of who they are is diseased, sinful, or wrong. We will not stop until every child, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, knows they were born perfect. We are putting those who have, until now, skirted the law on notice that their days of making a living off the anguish of LGBTQ people are numbered.
Samantha Ames is a staff attorney and campaign coordinator for the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy by 2019. Learn more at www.NCLRights.org/BornPerfect.