SPLC, others file federal consumer fraud complaint against conversion therapy group

A Virginia-based group is committing consumer fraud by offering services it claims can convert people from gay to straight – deceptive practices that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) must stop, according to a federal complaint the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups filed with the FTC today.

The complaint describes how People Can Change (PCC) has offered these services known as “conversion therapy” despite the lack of scientific evidence to support their claims. It urges the FTC to investigate the group under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices.

“Conversion therapy is a harmful scam based on junk science – end of story,” said Scott McCoy, SPLC senior staff attorney. “Groups such as People Can Change are nothing more than modern-day snake oil salesmen. They prey upon vulnerable people with bogus claims that they can change someone’s sexual orientation.”

Conversion therapy has been discredited by virtually every major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organization. Many who have undergone such therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.

Last year in a landmark SPLC trial, a jury unanimously found New Jersey conversion therapy provider JONAH had violated the state’s consumer fraud law. Despite a jury finding that JONAH had “engaged in unconscionable commercial practices” – including referring clients to PCC for services – PCC continues to operate in largely the same manner as before the JONAH trial, according to the complaint.

During the trial, JONAH clients described how they endured disappointment, frustration, and depression as conversion therapy services failed. JONAH’s so-called treatment strained family relationships for some men, leading them to blame family members for their sexual orientation.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy,” plaintiff Benjamin Unger testified at the June trial. “It was very harmful. It made me very depressed, and people have a right to know about it.”

Four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning conversion therapy for minors. The governor of New York has used executive action to adopt regulations to protect young people from conversion therapy. U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., has introduced federal legislation aimed at eliminating the practice.

The SPLC filed the complaint with the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Law firm Cooley LLP served as counsel to the groups for the filing.