Gay Therapy Quackery: Anti-Gay Advocates Suing Over California Ban

Last year, California became the first state in the country to enact a law that prohibits licensed mental health professionals from using dangerous and scientifically discredited efforts to try to change a young person’s sexual orientation or gender expression. This groundbreaking law — known as SB 1172 — was authored by state Senator Ted Lieu, who was moved to action after hearing firsthand stories by young people who struggled with lasting harms after being exposed to this type of psychological abuse. 

One of these survivors, Ryan Kendall, courageously shared his story during the federal court challenge to Proposition 8 — the 2008 ballot initiative that stripped equal marriage rights from same-sex couples in California. During the trial, Ryan was called as a witness to share his experience of being forced to see a California therapist named Joseph Nicolosi, who falsely claims that he can make a gay person straight. Ryan testified that Nicolosi’s “treatments” destroyed Ryan’s relationship with his family and drove Ryan into homelessness, depression, and the brink of suicide.    

Ryan also testified in favor of the new law before the California Assembly this past June, stating,

“I am here today because as a young teenager I dreamed that one day adults would pass legislation to protect people like me. I am here because youth subjected to these discredited therapies deserve a voice in the room. They are the ones living the trauma and horror that conversion therapy inflicts on people for no reason, with no evidence, merely because of who they are. If any of these youth are listening, they should know that there is nothing wrong with them; they are perfect, beautiful, and deserving of love.”

The new law was slated to take effect on January 1, 2013, but it has been temporarily delayed due to a lawsuit filed by Nicolosi — the same therapist who harmed Ryan Kendall and countless other LGBT youth. Nicolosi brought the suit with two other therapists and an anti-LGBT organization called NARTH, which stands for the National Association of Research and Therapy on Homosexuality. Nicolosi and the other plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBT legal organization founded by Jerry Falwell, who before his death in 2007, was one of the nation’s most extreme anti-gay advocates. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Liberty Counsel as a hate group due to its propagation of known falsehoods about LGBT people.

In December, a federal district court judge in Sacramento denied a request by Nicolosi and NARTH to stop the new law from taking effect. Nicolosi and NARTH appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has temporarily delayed the law from taking effect while it considers the appeal. California Attorney General Kamala Harris is defending the new law. She has argued forcefully that California has a compelling interest in protecting LGBT youth from these dangerous practices. Equality California, represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is also helping to defend the law in court.       

California’s leading mental health organizations supported and helped draft the new law, based on a scientific consensus that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender expression are not only ineffective, but dangerous. When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill last August, he noted, "This bill bans non-scientific 'therapies' that have driven young people to depression and suicide. These practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery."

The Ninth Circuit is expected to rule early this year. For updates on the case, visit NCLR’s website at www.nclrights.org.

Shannon Minter is the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represents Equality California in the litigation challenging SB 1172.