First-of-its-kind bill aims to block 'ex-gay' therapy

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Cannon Building office, Feb. 26, 2015. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Cannon Building office, Feb. 26, 2015. 

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu on Tuesday introduced a federal bill — the first of its kind — aimed at preventing so-called “conversion therapy,” a medically discredited practice commonly used in an effort to turn gay people straight.

The legislation, entitled the “Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act,” would amend the Federal Trade Commission Act to classify for-profit conversion therapy as fraud. It would also prohibit advertisements across the U.S. claiming to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The Federal Trade Commission would be charged with policing conversion therapy in the same way it does other fraudulent activities.

With no Republican co-sponsors, the bill faces an uphill battle in the GOP-dominated 114th Congress. The measure does, however, have the support of Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who signed on as an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

“Being LGBT is not an illness,” Pelosi said in a statement released Tuesday. “It does not require a cure. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is not medicine, it is not right, and it has no place in America. We cannot and will not allow conversion therapy peddlers to continue to profit from the abuse of LGBT children and adults.”

Related: UN panel questions gay conversion therapy in US

Conversion therapy — also known as “reparative” or “ex-gay therapy” — has seen its credibility tank in recent years. Such “therapy” has been linked to increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and, in some cases, suicide among those who have undergone it. The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and American Medical Association have all condemned the practice. Additionally, a growing number of leaders in the “ex-gay” field have walked away from their organizations, some choosing to come out as gay themselves and marry same-sex partners.

Yet conversion therapy is still permitted in a majority of the country. Only a small handful of states — California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington D.C. — have passed laws banning the practice for minors. Opponents went on to challenge those bans in both California and New Jersey, but each law survived in federal court.

Lieu, a freshman in the U.S. House of Representatives, actually championed California’s ban on conversion therapy when he was still in the state legislature. Signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012, California’s law was the first of its kind designed to protect LGBT youth from the practice.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Lieu explained that the bill he introduced Tuesday was considerably broader than the California legislation. If enacted, the federal measure would protect transgender people as well as members of the gay community, and it would apply to people of all ages — not just those under 18.

“[F]raud is fraud, whether you practice it on a 16-year-old or a 45-year-old,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Lieu said he was hoping to have support from the Obama administration, but acknowledged that the White House typically does not endorse newly introduced legislation. President Obama in April called for an end to conversion therapy among LGBT youth.

“I’m very happy that President Obama came out several weeks ago saying conversion therapy should be banned,” Lieu said Tuesday. “There’s no medical basis for it, and I’m confident that if this bill got to the president’s desk, he would sign it.”