This week, the so-called gay cure goes to trial in New Jersey.
The practice has been widely condemned in recent years by the medical and mental health communities, and it’s been banned in a number of states. Nevertheless, practitioners of conversion therapy, as the practice is sometimes called, continue to promise patients that it is possible to change sexual orientation through therapy.
In June, a court will consider whether that promise is fraudulent. A jury in Jersey City will consider the case of four young men and two of their parents, who have accused a conversion therapy center of fraud. The lawsuit, filed in 2012 against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, is the first of its kind.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, argue that JONAH violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that its counseling services could cure clients of being gay.
Before the trial begins later this week, Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City and one of the most vocal critics of conversion therapy, did an email Q&A with The Huffington Post about the case. In his view, a win for the plaintiffs would have a “chilling effect” on conversion therapists around the country.
(To read an in-depth investigation into the practice, check out our story “Straight Talk: How Mathew Shurka And His Conversion Therapist Renounced The ‘Gay Cure'”)
To start with, I’m curious to hear about the first time you came across the practice of conversion therapy. What context did you learn about it in, and what did you think at the time?
I first heard about these practices early in my career in the 1980s, when I began seeing gay patients in NYC. Many of them were older than me and earlier in their lives had gone to see therapists, usually psychoanalysts, who tried to change their sexual orientation. All of these patients spoke of those experiences with sadness, anger and shame. Eventually they had all later come out as gay. I shared their feelings — sadness for what they had been through, anger at the arrogance of the therapists who made claims they could not back up, and shame because my chosen profession had done damage to these people.
Has your impression of the practice — and those who practice it — changed since then?
No. In the 1990s, when conversion therapy practices experienced a “renaissance” in religious communities and stories about them began to appear in the media, I became deeply alarmed. The general feeling in my profession at the time was that there was no harm in trying or that these practices were over. I knew that was not true. That’s when I began writing professional criticisms of conversion therapy practitioners, with my first publication in 1995 in the Newsletter of the New York State Psychiatric Association.
The American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder in 1973. Why do you think it took until 2009 for the American Psychological Association to announce that conversion therapy — a cure for a problem that no longer existed — was ineffective and potentially harmful?
In 1998, the psychiatric APA issued its first critical position statement of conversion therapies, and in 2000 issued a stronger one. These statements were issued following the increased marketing of SOCE by religious social conservative groups in the 1990s. Up until that time, most people assumed these practices were not going on.
The American Psychological Association issued a critical report of SOCE in 2009. I was a member (the only psychiatrist member) of that task force.
Since you began working as a psychiatrist, do you think your profession’s attitude towards LGBT people, and the LGBT movement, has shifted? Has it ever been difficult for you, professionally, to be openly gay?
My APA took a position in support of marriage equality in 2005.
I have experienced prejudice as an openly gay man in psychiatric residency training and in psychoanalytic training in the ’80s and early ’90s. I have written about those experiences. I think the conditions that existed back then have greatly improved in some parts of the country, but not all.
Let’s talk about the JONAH trial. First of all, how significant is this case in the overall movement to ban conversion therapy?
I think this case is highly significant, as it focuses on consumer fraud. A win by the plaintiffs will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on practitioners of SOCE beyond the borders of New Jersey. For example, it may also provide other states with models for laws of their own that will protect the public from practitioners of conversion “therapy” in those states. A win would also expand the ban on SOCE embodied in existing legislative bans in CA, NJ, OR and DC: They only apply to licensed professionals who do SOCE with minors. Consumer fraud laws can be used against non-licensed practitioners and protect adult patients as well. As I said, that’s significant.
You’ve been a long-time observer of the proponents of conversion therapy. Is there anything in particular that you will be watching for in this trial?
No. I have no idea what to expect, although I was heartened to hear the judge ruled out testimony from most of their “expert” witnesses.
In 2013, Charles Limandri, the president and general counsel of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is representing JONAH, wrote, “Individuals with same-sex attraction have a right to seek counseling to live their lives as they choose.” What do you think of this claim?
I think of this as an “old wine” in a new bottle, as this argument was first made by SOCE practitioners in 1997 on the pages of that reputable medical journal, the Wall Street Journal.
I do believe that individuals have a right to seek counseling to live their lives as they choose. However, licensed professionals and unlicensed quacks do not have a right to sell the public snake oil. In such cases, the state has a compelling interest to protect the public, even if members of the public choose to seek out “treatments” that don’t work and that may be harmful.
I see an analogy with laetrile, a quack treatment for cancer that was touted in the 1970s. After studies showed it was ineffective (and harmful in that people who sought out laetrile often failed to seek out conventional, more effective treatments), you couldn’t get laetrile in the U.S., and doctors were not allowed to prescribe it. Some resourceful individuals could go to Mexico to get laetrile. Perhaps after a few more consumer fraud lawsuits, conversion therapies will only be permitted for those who travel to Mexico to seek it out as well.
The first federal bill to ban the practice was proposed last month. What do you think it will take to end conversion therapy entirely? And are we close to that moment?
I don’t think the practice will ever end entirely. I think in terms of a harm reduction model: The best we can hope for is to educate the public about the harm and when harm has been done, hold the practitioners to account.