Three states and the District of Columbia have already banned "conversion therapy," the ludicrous, damaging practice of trying to turn gay people straight. The American Psychological Association has thoroughly debunked the idea that therapeutically changing someone's sexuality is even possible. Last year, progressive legislators floated a bill to try and get the federal government to ban the practice, but it withered in an obstructionist Congress.
Today, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) tried a more direct route to action on the national level. They wrote to the Federal Trade Commission and asked the consumer protection regulatory body to ban conversion therapy outright.
"Medical and mental health experts have discredited so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ and it can do real damage to LGBT youth," Murray said in an e-mailed statement. "It has no place in our country. I hope the Federal Trade Commission will take steps to stop this harmful and fraudulent practice, and I want to continue to push for ways to make sure all people, regardless of who they are or who they love, are treated equally and with respect."
Tolerance of and support for "conversion therapy" has been eroding for years now. Exodus International, the biggest pro-conversion therapy group of its kind, went under in 2013 after many of its leaders came out. That same year, New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed a bill banning therapists from attempting to force their patients to change their sexual orientation.
In 2015, a successful New Jersey consumer fraud case against JONAH, a Jewish gay conversion therapy group, revealed some of the horrifying practices associated with the movement. Zoë Schlanger, a reporter at Newsweek, covered some of the creepiest aspects of JONAH's attempts at conversion therapy revealed during the trial:
[JONAH therapist Alan] Downing seemed obsessed with Unger’s sexual proclivities during their sessions. One of his notes included a matrix of all the men Unger found attractive, paired with detailed notes about their physical characteristics. “Smooth skinned, no facial, attracted to buttocks,” Downing wrote next to one man’s name.
Later, in his office, Downing would ask Unger to strip naked. He would frolic in a field, naked too, with people he was supposed to be “healing.” He would ask other men to hold each other in darkened rooms. It was all part of the therapy, practiced on tens of thousands of young men in the U.S. and abroad, by a wide network of “life coaches” like Downing.
"We think this is a really important issue," David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said. "[Conversion therapy] is not only ineffective, but it's unhelpful and harmful."
Stacy doesn't think Congress is going to make moves on banning conversion therapy, so the HRC is pursuing an "all of the above" strategy to try and tackle the issue locally and federally. "Getting a bill in Congress builds support, but at the same time letters like Senator Murray's are important to putting this front and center with the FTC."
Neither Stacy nor any legislative staffer I spoke to was familiar with the FTC banning practices like conversion therapy in the past. Still, Stacy and Murray's office are hopeful that the FTC will be able to take action independent of congressional gridlock. Read the full letter to the FTC here.
This post has been updated.