Benjamin Unger was 19 years old when he smashed a pillowy sculpture of his mother with a tennis racket until his hands bled. Destroying the dummy was part of his treatment with a religious organization that hoped to cure him of being gay. They told Unger his homosexual urges were likely the result of his close relationship with his mother. He stopped speaking to her entirely.
Two years ago, Unger wiped away tears as he re-told the story to a courtroom in New Jersey. There’s no national ban against gay conversion therapy the U.S., but Unger’s civil case became the first to challenge that notion.
Unger and thousands of young men faced psychological and sexual abuse in the guise of gay conversion therapy. However, their disturbing stories are likely not enough to make gay conversion therapy illegal across the country. Instead, action is happening bit by bit, as a steady stream of cities, counties and states are outlawing the practice that has proven to do far more harm than good.
Gay conversion therapy has a history of using violent, coercive strategies with zero scientific backing. Unger’s therapist, Alan Downing, has no psychology degree or mental health license of any kind, yet was presented to Unger’s family as “an expert in the field” of turning gay men straight. During his sessions, Downing would have clients strip down naked or re-enact experiences of childhood sexual abuse.
This isn’t a far cry from popular treatments for homosexuality in the '60s and '70s — such as aversion therapy, which included shocking patients or giving them nausea-inducing drugs while showing them same-sex pornography, estrogen treatment to reduce their libido, and even electroconvulsive therapy to induce seizures and re-wire their brains.
The court case against Downing and the religious organization he worked under — JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing — didn’t focus on whether or not gay conversion therapy is morally corrupt. It focused on if the therapy is effective. If it’s not even possible to transform homosexual people into straight people, the therapy is a scam, and those gay boys deserve their money back. JONAH and Downing were eventually found guilty of consumer fraud.
The psychological damage done to gay conversion therapy clients seems impossible to ignore — but a nationwide ban on the practice seems unlikely to pass anytime soon. Instead, lawmakers at the state, county and city levels are taking matters into their own hands.
California became the first state to outlaw conversion therapy in 2012. Eight other states have banned it since, including Nevada, New Mexico and Connecticut in 2017 alone. Last summer, Rhode Island joined the ranks with its own long-anticipated bill.
In some states — like Florida, for example — the conservative legislature makes a state-wide ban highly unlikely. Citizens who want conversion therapy outlawed have to start even smaller.
County Commissioner Dave Kerner focused on the local level, and got conversion therapy outlawed in Palm Beach County. “Palm Beach was the first county in Florida to pass the ban,” Kerner says.
Kerner faced hefty resistance from faith-based organizations, including “one gentleman who was convinced his relationship with God successfully converted him from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual one,” Kerner says. The ban passed despite opposition.
"Kudos to Palm Beach County Commissioners for recognizing that instilling self-hatred in LGBTQ children through psychological torture is not therapy," lauded Trent Steele, board member for the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council.
“Palm Beach acted as a catalyst,” Kerner says. Since his county enacted the ban, laws against gay conversion therapy have been advancing across South Florida. “The odds of getting it banned in the state are below zero percent. Our only chance of spreading this is in local government.”
It won’t happen overnight, but little by little, homosexuality “treatments” and “therapist” quacks will be left without a leg to stand on.