Rep. Ted Lieu hosted a roundtable at the UCLA School of Law on June 6 with advocates, mental health experts and survivors of LGBTQ “conversion therapy” to discuss the devastating impact of the fraudulent practice. Lieu intends to reintroduce the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, legislation he first introduced in 2015, that would enact a blanket federal ban on the harmful commercial promise to “convert” LGBT people into heterosexuals.
Lieu was inspired to fight for a “conversion therapy” ban after seeing a documentary on the infamous “Sissy Boy” experiment. As a California State Senator, he described the fraudulent practice as “psychological child abuse” and authored and passed the first prohibition in 2012. That legislation has since served as a model for similar bans in 18 states and numerous municipalities.
The Williams Institute estimates that 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have received “conversion therapy,” 350,000 of whom suffered the experience as adolescents. Most medical and psychological professional associations strongly oppose “conversion therapy” as illegitimate.
Lieu was optimistic that the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act can garner bipartisan support, pointing to the bipartisan backing for the Equality Act, the LGBT civil rights bill that passed the current Democratic-controlled House. “Like any other institution, the [Republican-controlled] Senate responds to public sentiment. If people rise up and say this is evil and wrong, [the Senate] could pass it,” he said.
Casey Pick, a Senior Research Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at the Trevor Project, noted that of the 18 states where bipartisan bans have been enacted, seven were signed into law by Republican governors.
“The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, by declaring conversion therapy to be the harmful and wholly ineffective fraud that it is, elevates the conversation to another level. Most importantly, this bill tells LGBTQ youth across the country that their sexual orientation and gender identity is real and should be protected under the law,” said Pick.
“If enacted, this bill would protect thousands of people across the country, and make clear that a person’s protection against this harmful therapy should not depend on where they live,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Executive Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA.
But, Samuels noted, there are “increasing threats in the courts.” Protecting the bans “is vitally important.” Additionally, states with bans often carve out exceptions, exclusions for religious or spiritual advisors, leaving an estimated 57,000 LGBTQ youth nationwide vulnerable to “conversion” counseling.
“Issues around conversion therapy come up regularly in conversation with youth who contact us, as often as weekly,” said Pick. “Our records show that in recent years, hundreds of contacts have reached out to the Trevor Project expressing specific concerns about conversion therapy, and related terms have appeared on our text-based platforms with disturbing frequency.”
Despite the LGBT progress, “we still receive people who come in seeking services as a result of the barbaric and inhumane treatment that they experienced at the hands of someone practicing conversion therapy,” said Terra Russell Slavin, Director of Policy and Community Building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “The trauma is not being LGBT, it’s being rejected and being put through conversion therapy.”
Mathew Shurka, Co-Founder of “Born Perfect: Ending Conversion Therapy,” experienced “conversion therapy” from ages 16 to 21, after a licensed professional told his loving father that homosexuality did not exist and was created by the trauma of being too close to female family members.
“They believe that trauma is the source of anything LGBTQ, and that if you can treat the trauma, you can stop the same-sex attraction,” Shurka said, noting that the therapist exacerbated his three-year separation from his mother and sisters. “It had a massive impact on my life and relationships with them.”
Kate McCobb said her California-licensed psychotherapist “focused immediately on repressed sexual abuse,” though there was none. “First it was about convincing me that I was traumatized, and then about me recovering from my trauma.”
Duped, McCobb started dating men. “I was told that if I stopped dating women, my attraction to them would eventually subside. I was also told that all romantic interactions I’d ever had with women were a re-enacting of childhood abuse, and that was the last thing I’d want to do to another person,” she said.
McCobb quit the “therapy,” moved to Oregon and worked with the National Center for Lesbian Rights to take legal action against the therapist. “It took me a little while to realize that what I’d gone through was conversion therapy, but once I did, I was angry,” McCobb said.
James Guay, a marriage and family therapist, and “conversion therapy” survivor, explained the fraudulence as convincing participants that they’re “actually straight, but haven’t yet reached their heterosexual or cisgender potential,” finding an often fabricated root cause or implanting false memories and conflating gender identity and sexual orientation.
“A rejection of self is at the core of what creates these [mental health] problems for people in conversion therapy. When we are taught to limit our natural expression and humanity, it produces all sorts of symptoms,” said Guay.
The Center’s Terra Russell Slavin said passage of the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act is essential to the LGBTQ community.
“If we are truly, as a community, going to thrive as healthy, equal, and complete,” Slavin said, “conversion therapy” as a recognized practice “needs to stop – and it needs to stop now.”