May 19, 2015 at 12:07 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
In first, federal bill seeks to ban ‘ex-gay’ therapy
Ted Lieu, conversion therapy ban, Democratic Party, California, United States House of Representatives, ex-gay, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) has introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced for the first-time ever federal legislation on Tuesday seeking to ban the widely discredited practice of “ex-gay” conversion therapy throughout the country.

Lieu said during a news conference that he introduced the measure, the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, because medical and psychological experts say conversion therapy is only not ineffective, but also potentially harms individuals who endure it.

“We know that being gay or lesbian is not a medical condition that needs a cure,” Lieu said. “Love doesn’t need a cure. That’s what the bill is about.”

Under the legislation, conversion therapy would be classified as fraud under the Federal Trade Commission Act. If the legislation were signed into law, the Federal Trade Commission could enforce the bill at its discretion and private citizens could bring lawsuits against those who practice “ex-gay” therapy.

“What the bill will do is outlaw conversion therapy by saying that you cannot advertise that you’re doing conversion therapy, you cannot say that it works, you cannot promote it and you cannot profit off of it,” Lieu said.

California, New Jersey and D.C. have already enacted laws barring “ex-gay” conversion therapy. A similar measure was passed by the Oregon Legislature and is headed to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown, who’s expected to sign it. The White House endorsed such bans in April, advocating a state-by-state approach to the issue.

But the federal bill is different from the state bans on conversion therapy in many respects. First, the state laws bar the practice only for minors, but the federal bill would prohibit the therapy for everyone so long as the practitioners charge for the services.

Lieu, who spearheaded efforts as a state legislator to pass the ban in California, said he would have liked to have enacted a law in California to bar the practice for minors and adults, but that wasn’t feasible.

“I would have loved to have done it for everyone, but I couldn’t get it through the legislative process, so we did it for minors, and other states replicated it,” Lieu said. “Now, I think with the additional shift in public opinion as well as medical science and the numerous medical associations that have come out and said this is crazy therapy, it’s time to ban it across the nation for all ages because fraud is fraud whether you practice it on a 16-year-old or a 46-year-old.”

The legislation is also different from the state bans because it applies only to practitioners who charge for their services. In that way, supporters of the bill say it doesn’t infringe upon First Amendment liberties or religious freedom, but at the same time is an effective way to stop “ex-gay” therapy because the majority of practitioners are for-profit.

The federal bill also explicitly bans conversion therapy efforts not only on the basis of sexual orientation, but also gender identity.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Blade the practice of conversion therapy for transgender people is just as ineffective as it is for gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

“It’s still the same fraud,” Keisling said. “You can’t change somebody’s gender identity; you can’t change somebody’s sexual orientation. They are a core part of our identity as human beings. While there may be a lot more research already on the sexual orientation aspect of these so-called practices, the research is coming. It’s the same thing, it’s the same fraud, it’s the same danger, it causes the same damage.”

Although the White House has endorsed bans on sexual orientation therapy, it has advocated a state-by-state approach to the issue to build support for “broader action” at a later time, stopping short of endorsing a federal bill.

Lieu said he would like support from the Obama administration, but noted the White House doesn’t usually express support for a bill immediately upon introduction.

“I’m very happy that President Obama came out several weeks ago saying conversion therapy should be banned,” Lieu said. “There’s no medical basis for it, and I’m confident that if this bill got to the president’s desk, he would sign it.”

Just hours after the Capitol Hill news conference, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stopped short of endorsing the legislation in response to a question from the Blade, but said the administration does “welcome congressional action” on the issue.

“There’s overwhelming scientific evidence to indicate that so-called therapy, especially when it’s practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate, and can actually cause substantial harm,” Earnest said. “So, we certainly would welcome some kind of congressional action to address the practice of so-called conversion therapy nationally, but we’re hopeful that members of Congress, and frankly, the practitioners across the country will rely on the clarity of the medical evidence that’s been marshaled to indicate that these kinds of practices are helpful, particularly when subjected to minors.”

Asked whether that response constituted an endorsement of the federal bill, Earnest demurred, saying, “I haven’t taken a close look at this specific legislation, so I’m not in position to offer a specific endorsement of the bill.”

“But I can say as a general matter, given the president’s strong opposition to so-called conversion therapy that he’s previously articulated, we would welcome congressional action that’s consistent with the views the president’s expressed on this,” Earnest said.

Supporters face a significant battle in guiding the bill toward passage in the 114th Congress. For starters, even though Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, not a single Republican is yet a co-sponsor.

Among the original co-sponsors of the legislation is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who issued a statement in support of the measure on the day it was introduced.

“Being LGBT is not an illness,” Pelosi said. “It does not require a cure. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is not medicine, it is not right, and it has no place in America. We cannot and will not allow conversion therapy peddlers to continue to profit from the abuse of LGBT children and adults.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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