In a little-noticed development, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission appears to have acted behind the scenes to persuade a Virginia-based “ex-gay” organization to drop its name People Can Change and soften its longstanding claims that its counseling programs can help people “transition away from unwanted homosexuality.”
But the FTC has declined to confirm or deny it took this action in response to a February 2016 consumer fraud complaint filed against People Can Change, Inc. before the FTC by the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In a joint statement released at the time they filed the FTC complaint, the three groups called the action historic, saying it had the potential to bring about an FTC ruling that could effectively ban conversion therapy performed for a fee throughout the country on grounds that it constitutes consumer fraud.
“It is our position that this is prohibited under the existing Federal Trade Commission Act language as well as under state level consumer protection laws,” said Xavier Persad, HRC’s legislative counsel.
“So yes, it is our position that existing consumer protection laws do prohibit the sale of conversion therapy in the public marketplace because we know that this is an unscientific practice that is thoroughly debunked and rejected by every major medical and mental health organization,” Persad said.
Delaware last week became the 14th state in addition to the District of Columbia to enact legislation prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from engaging in the practice of conversion therapy for minors.
In its preamble, the Delaware law lists 12 prominent U.S. and international mental health organizations that oppose conversion or “reparative” therapy aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity on grounds no evidence exists other than unconfirmed anecdotal reports to show that such efforts have worked.
The organizations cited in the law, including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, also warned that evidence exists that conversion therapy has caused harmful effects including depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
LGBT rights advocates have expressed mixed views on whether the best approach to curtailing conversion therapy is through laws banning licensed practitioners from performing it or by seeking to invoke existing state or federal consumer protection laws to declare the practice consumer fraud.
The consumer fraud approach has the advantage of covering all states, including many “red” states that are not likely to pass a specific law banning licensed professionals from performing conversion therapy. It also has the advantage of covering unlicensed practitioners who are known to perform conversion therapy.
However, LGBT rights attorneys point out that the consumer fraud approach requires that a lawsuit or formal complaint be filed in order to take action against someone engaging in the practice.
Although the consumer fraud approach requires legal action, advocates of that approach have pointed to a study released in January by the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank affiliated with the UCLA School of Law, which estimates that 20,000 LGBT youth ages 13-17 will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 41 states that did not ban the practice when the report was released in January.
The report says that 6,000 LGBT youth ages 13-17 who lived in states that ban conversion therapy would have received such therapy from a licensed practitioner before the age of 18 if their state had not banned the therapy.
FTC spokesperson Betsy Lordan told the Washington Blade last week that the FTC has a longstanding policy of not publicly disclosing any information about complaints it receives or its investigation of complaints unless and until it takes official legal action on such complaints.
“The FTC has not taken legal action against a Virginia company engaged in conversion therapy going by the name People Can Change, Inc.,” she said.
When asked whether the FTC played any role in People Can Change’s decision to change its name to Brothers on a Road Less Traveled, or “Brothers Road” for short, and shut down and re-launch its website with cautiously worded suggestions about whether someone can transition away from “same-sex attractions” – all of which took place shortly after the FTC complaint was filed against it, Lordan declined to comment.
Richard Wyler is listed as executive director and CEO of Brothers on a Road Less Traveled on the group’s IRS 990 finance report for 2016. Wyler did not respond to a phone message and email from the Blade seeking comment.
The old version of the group’s website under the name People Can Change identified Wyler as a certified life coach and said he “personally experienced enormous transformation from unwanted homosexual attractions.”
The complaint filed against the organization by the three LGBT supportive groups says he founded People Can Change in 2000 and incorporated it as a non-profit corporation in Virginia in 2002.
The IRS 990 report filed in 2016 includes an attached letter to Wyler from the Virginia State Corporation Commission approving Wyler’s application to change the organization’s corporate name. The letter confirming the name change is dated June 29, 2016 and was sent to an address under Wyler’s name in Barboursville, Va. near Charlottesville. The letter was sent four months after the FTC complaint was filed against the group under its previous name.
However, the group’s new website says the name was changed in October 2016. The current website makes no mention of the FTC complaint.
“Why the change?” it asks. “Simply to better communicate who we really are and what we’re really about,” it says. “We are a brotherhood of like-minded men who – instead of living a gay life or embracing a gay identity – support each other in addressing our same-sex attractions in affirming ways that align with our faith, values, morals and life goals,” the website says.
“In changing our name, we are not backing away from our personal, lived experience that people can and do in fact experience positive changes and growth…And yes, even our sexual desires, feelings and attractions,” it says.
Jacqueline Grise, a D.C. attorney who is representing the three groups that filed the FTC complaint, said it appears more than a coincidence that People Can Change changed its name and “rebranded” itself not long after the complaint was filed.
“So we don’t know what transpired between People Can Change and the FTC,” Grise said. “While we’ve asked a few times for updates from the agency they can’t really tell you,” she said. “But what we do know is that within several months after we filed our complaint with the FTC People Can Change took down their entire website and all of the content that we had been complaining about as far as being misleading,” she said.
“And now when you get on the website of Brothers Road a lot of the information on there is more subtle as far as whether it is scientifically possible to change or not,” Grise said, adding that all of the claims on the old website that there was scientific evidence that people can change their sexual orientation has been removed.
“For me, reading the tea leaves this is what the agency did,” she continued. “They probably called them in and People Can Change went down there and had to talk with the agency. And then after those discussions they determined it was probably in their best interest to change their whole branding and clean up the issues on their website that appeared to be what we claimed to be problematic and misleading,” Grise told the Blade.
“So in my mind it’s a win as far as scaling them back in what they’re doing,” she said. “But I’m not certain that there is actually anything still pending that the FTC intends to do.”
Without an official FTC ruling the case won’t directly establish that conversion therapy is a form of consumer fraud under federal law.
Conversion therapy supporters strike back
Although People Can Change and its new incarnation as Brothers Road does not appear to have spoken out publicly about the FTC complaint filed against it, the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice, formerly known as the National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality (NARTH), has denounced the complaint as part of a “hate campaign” aimed at banning psychotherapy for people who wish to receive it.
In May 2017 NARTH filed a counter complaint with the FTC calling HRC, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center “extremist organizations who continuously spread lies, disinformation and slander against psychotherapy for same-sex attraction.”
NARTH asserts in a statement announcing its counter complaint that “bans against therapy in the U.S.A. are based on clearly fraudulent claims by radical gay-lib.” In its complaint it calls on the FTC to order the three groups to “correct inaccurate statements on their websites and actively work with legislators across the United States to reverse legislation that has been passed into law [to ban conversion therapy] so that further harm can be avoided.”
Among other things, the complaint says supporters of banning conversion therapy have intentionally misinterpreted existing scientific literature to falsely claim that homosexuality is immutable and that therapy aimed at changing someone’s same-sex attractions causes psychological harm.
Grise said the FTC has not contacted her or her three clients about NARTH’s counter complaint, leading her to believe the FTC has no plans to take any action in connection with the counter complaint.
“This FTC complaint is completely without merit,” said HRC’s Persad. “Despite this attempt to perpetuate lies in support of the harmful and discredited practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’ we continue to urge the FTC to act on our complaint and put a stop to all conversion therapy practitioners defrauding and harming consumers,” he said in an email.
Efforts to pursue the consumer fraud approach to stopping conversion therapy received a boost last year when Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2017. The bill would “prohibit, as an unfair or deceptive act or practice, commercial sexual orientation conversion therapy,” among other related practices.
Capitol Hill observers say the bill has little chance of passing under the current Republican-controlled Congress but could move forward if Democrats win control of Congress in the November election.