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Fraud Complaint Could Be ‘Nail in the Coffin’ of ‘Conversion Therapy’ Groups

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission urges the agency to investigate so-called "gay conversion therapy" practitioners.

Advocates from human rights organizations filed a federal consumer fraud complaint against an organization that promotes so-called “gay conversion therapy,” charging the group defrauds consumers into believing that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that can be “cured.”

The complaint, filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against People Can Change (PCC), alleges PCC is an organization that preys on vulnerable LGBTQ people and families by using damaging and discredited claims that it can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

PCC relies on what advocates claim is junk pseudoscience that has for decades been linked to depression, substance abuse, decreased self esteem, and self harm, including suicide, according to the complaint.

The complaint was filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

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The complaint alleges that PCC’s advertisements and business practices, which expressly and implicitly claim that they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, constitute deceptive, false, and misleading practices that can cause serious harm to consumers, all in direct violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.

“Conversion therapy is abusive, harmful to children, and we urge the FTC to join our call to ban its practice once and for all,” HRC President Chad Griffin said. “This is dangerous junk science that uses fear and shame to tell young people the only way to find love and acceptance is by changing the very nature of who they are.”

The complaint also alleges that, in violation of FTC guidelines, PCC, like other practitioners in the “conversion therapy” industry, falsely claims that its “services” have a basis in science, and fails to disclose that its practices can lead to harm. PCC and other conversion therapy practitioners target and exploit highly vulnerable groups, including LGBTQ youth, who already experience bias and rejection at alarming rates in society and their own homes, advocates claim.

“After decades of advocacy, the voices of conversion therapy survivors have carried all the way up to the highest levels of government,” Samantha Ames, NCLR #BornPerfect campaign coordinator, said in a statement. “This historic complaint is not only the first clear opportunity the Obama Administration has had to end these deadly practices for good, but, if investigated fully, could very well be the final nail in the coffin of the entire conversion therapy industry.”

The FTC complaint builds on legal successes by advocates against conversion therapy practitioners. Last year, a SPLC lawsuit forced the New Jersey conversion therapy provider JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) to permanently stop its program and pay damages to plaintiffs. A jury found that JONAH had committed consumer fraud and engaged in unconscionable commercial practices in violation of state law.

The complaint follows a groundbreaking Department of Health and Human Services report called Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth. The new legal challenge comes months after President Obama, Senior White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy each issued statements calling for an end to conversion therapy.

The advocates are asking the federal government to take enforcement action to stop PCC’s deceptive practices and investigate practitioners making similar claims.

PCC has not yet responded to the complaint.

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