Two years ago, in a testimony to the state of New Jersey, Benjamin Unger recounted how he was made to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket. The action was part of a “treatment” meant to curb his attraction to men. According to Unger, a religious organization tasked with turning him straight told him that his close connection to his mother was the cause of his sexual orientation. He stopped speaking to her entirely.
So-called “conversion therapy,” the practice of trying to change a person’s sexual orientation (almost always from gay or bisexual to straight), has a history of damaging, scientifically unfounded approaches. In The Inheritance of Shame, Peter Gajdics describes being pinned down by two other men as his psychiatrist screams at him, mocking him for having sex with other men. Other first-person accounts—of men in the U.S., and more recently, of men in China as well as women in Ecuador—recount similarly violent, coercive experiences.
In the U.S., state governments are beginning to outlaw conversion therapy in growing numbers. California became the first to do so in 2012. Eight other states have banned it in some form since. In 2017 alone, Nevada, New Mexico, and Connecticut have signed their own bans into law. And two weeks ago, a long-anticipated bill passed the Rhode Island Senate.
“We’ve gone from kind of a trickle to what seems to be more of a stream,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel at the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC filed the suit against JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, the conversion-therapy group involved with Unger’s treatment. The widely covered case was the first consumer-fraud case heard against the use of conversion therapy in the U.S.
A number of professional organizations have spoken out on the lack of evidence for the practice’s efficacy, as well as the deep psychological toll it has taken on those subjected to it. In his attempts to alter his clients’ orientation, Alan Downing—a JONAH-affiliated “life coach”—had two people re-enact experiences of childhood sexual abuse. During a session that reportedly cost $100, he made another client fully undress in front of a mirror. After sessions with Downing, Unger fell into a deep depression, and began praying that he would die in his sleep. Chaim Levin, another plaintiff in the JONAH case, attempted to kill himself.
While one can imagine a clear moral argument against this practice, the ruling in the JONAH case stemmed from the simple fact that it does not work. Research supports this point. A decade after the psychiatrist Robert Spitzer published a controversial and refuted study in 2003 of 200 men and women who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation to “predominantly heterosexual” after some form of “reparative therapy,” he apologized, saying there was no way to verify his participants’ responses.
Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist who has chaired the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity and helped write the guidelines on sexuality and gender disorders for the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, tells me that there is no standardization of the practice, and what little research exists around it is poorly done and not subject to peer review. “It’s like the Wild, Wild West,” he said.
During his presidency, Barack Obama called for an end to “therapies” that aim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, but a bill introduced to ban conversion therapy at the federal level stalled in Congress last year. The 2016 GOP platform drew the ire of activists as well as the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group, for including “the right of parents to consent to medical treatment for their minor children,” which some both in and outside of the party interpreted as a tacit endorsement of “conversion therapy.” And, according to McCoy, the understanding of conversion therapy as a threat to children has helped marshal Republican support for these bills at a state level.
In a contentious year when other LGBTQ-rights issues have become the center of debate—including North Carolina’s HB2 bill, the decision to continue to exclude questions about sexual orientation and gender from the national census, the State Department’s denial of visas to gay and bisexual Chechens fleeing state-sanctioned violence, and the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearing of the appeal of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple—McCoy maintains that the movements to ban so-called conversion therapy have their own “independent momentum.”
“Obviously, to a certain extent it makes sense to pick battles,” McCoy said, noting that, as in Rhode Island, where advocates have been working to pass a bill like this for years, movements to ban so-called conversion therapy have taken on lives of their own. “The science is clear. The constitutional issues are now gone. It seems to me that it’s an easier sell than it used to be.” He adds that there are many states where a state-wide ban would be unlikely due to the makeup of their legislatures—Alabama and Florida, for example—but in some of those places local and city-level initiatives to ban it are taking off nonetheless.
Still, the laws in many states are limited. Most states that have enacted bans restrict the actions of licensed mental-health practitioners like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, and are focused on minors. These laws don’t affect unlicensed practitioners or adults who seek their services. This will be the case for Rhode Island in the very likely event that the newly passed bill is signed into law. In contrast, New Jersey’s JONAH case declared conversion therapy completely illegal in the state on the basis of consumer fraud. Even an adult who wants to undergo treatment with a life coach, a clergy member, or other provider not subject to the rules of a licensing board can’t do so legally, because of the lack of evidence that conversion therapy works.
Despite states’ initiatives, Drescher notes that the practice remains notoriously hard to track and document. News stories of religiously affiliated camps abound. And in light of the increasing attention the JONAH case has drawn, McCoy says, those who try to change the sexual orientations of their clients have shifted the language by which they advertise: “Of course no one is saying, ‘I do conversion therapy’—that doesn’t happen anymore.” Rather, according to McCoy, those who practice it trade in phrases like “unwanted same-sex attraction,” or “sexual confusion.” Stamping out those practices would call for a law that takes more a general approach, possibly building off the consumer-fraud ruling in the JONAH case.
And while McCoy believes a ban like that at the federal level is unlikely to pass under the current administration, Democratic Senators still appear to be trying. The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, a bill focused on illegalizing any conversion therapy that charges money, was filed in the U.S. Senate in April. The bill draws on the same consumer-fraud logic as the JONAH case, and would extend the bans that already exist in several states. Whether the “chilling effect” of the JONAH case lends the bill any momentum, and whether state-level bans continue to fill the gaps in the meantime and prevent the kind of abuse that Unger and Levin underwent, remains to be seen.