Katherine McCobb spent upwards of $70,000 over eight years on a therapist who claimed he could change her sexual orientation.
The therapist warned McCobb that being “a lesbian was pathological,” according to the California Superior Court complaint filed last year on McCobb’s behalf. The Berkley therapist suggested McCobb wear makeup, lose weight, and grow her hair to look feminine.
New California legislation aims to make this type of treatment, called “conversion therapy,” a form of consumer fraud under state law. AB 2943 cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, passing out of a state committee on a bipartisan vote.
“This would lead the nation in declaring this a fraudulent practice,” said the bill’s author, Assemblyperson Evan Low (D-Cupertino), chair of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus.
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Nearly every major medical and counseling association rejects reparative or “conversion” therapy, which claims to change a person’s sexual orientation through religious ministry, counseling, or even electric shock treatment.
“The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Medical Association have all declared that this poses a critical health risk and that conversion therapy is damaging, counterproductive, and not effective,” Low told Rewire.News.
California is among ten states and the District of Columbia that generally ban performing “conversion” therapy on minors, according to Human Rights Campaign. Maryland is poised to become the 11th state despite Republican legislative opposition. California was the first state to pass a ban in 2012.
The new legislation, which is sponsored by Equality California and the Trevor Project, applies to adults, providing consumer protections under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Low said. The bill outlaws “advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual” in consumer transactions, according to a committee analysis.
“Courts have found that claims that sexual orientation change efforts are effective in changing an individual’s sexual orientation constitute unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business practices under state consumer protection laws,” said Carolyn Reyes, youth policy counsel with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and an attorney in the McCobb case.
In 2015, a New Jersey jury decided that conversion therapy amounts to consumer fraud, Reyes told Rewire.News. The case involved the counseling group Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, which had claimed it could change clients’ sexual orientation.
Reyes said the bill Low is advancing hasn’t been enacted anywhere in the United States.
Dr. Douglas Haldeman, past president of the California Psychological Association, testified Tuesday in favor of the bill. He said patients sought his care after undergoing “conversion” treatment that included forced isolation, nausea-inducing drugs, and electric shocks to the genitals.
One patient, he recalled, struggled for years with suicidal thoughts. Haldeman said he asked his patient why he’d allowed himself to undergo “conversion” therapy. His patient answered, “In my world, I felt it was what I needed to do to stay alive, although what I’m living now doesn’t feel like much of a life.”
The bill has drawn sharp opposition from churches and religious groups that argue it infringes on their religious rights and free speech.
California clinical psychologist Dr. Joseph Nicolosi Jr., with the National Task Force for Therapy Equality, said the legislation jeopardizes a treatment that he and his late father have practiced for decades. Nicolosi’s father is considered a pioneer of “conversion” therapy, as the Daily Beast reported, and founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.
“I have a better solution: How about we let adults make their own decisions about what goals and objectives they want to pursue in therapy,” Nicolosi told lawmakers. “The state has no business telling someone that their therapy goals are illegal.”
Low disagrees. He argues that so-called conversion therapy is unsupported by scientific evidence and poses a significant threat to people.
“We should identify and accept people as who they are,” he told Rewire.News. “There should be no conversion. This practice is harmful.”