Ex-gay leader Dr. Joseph Nicolosi died on Wednesday at age 70 from complications of the flu.
Ryan Kendall, one of Nicolosi’s former patients, is lucky he survived to see 16.
In a 2012 blog post for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Kendall recalled being driven to “the brink of suicide” when his parents discovered he was gay and started sending him to weekly sessions with Nicolosi, who according to his résumé specialized in “the treatment of men who wish to diminish their same-sex attractions and develop their heterosexual potential.”
That description is a euphemism for “conversion therapy”—or medical treatment designed to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay, lesbian, or bisexual to straight—which Nicolosi championed as a founder of the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH. Conversion therapy has been denounced as ineffective and unethical by virtually every major medical association.
Kendall only got away from Nicolosi, he says, by running away from his family.
“Eventually, I realized that the only way for me to escape the psychological abuse was to leave home,” he wrote. “At 16, when most young people are making college plans, my sole focus became finding a way to stay safe and alive.”
The young man succeeded in getting his parents’ custody revoked and went on to testify in front of the California legislature in 2012—right before the state became the first in the country to ban conversion therapy for minors. Nicolosi, who practiced in California until his death, was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the ban. That lawsuit failed.
But the dangerous practice that Nicolosi helped popularize as a multimillion-dollar therapeutic industry in the 1990s and 2000s will outlive him—if not in California, then in the 44 states where it is still perfectly legal.
Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, and Illinois all followed the Golden State in criminalizing the practice via legislation. And last February, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo restricted conversion therapy through executive action. A smattering of cities and municipalities—like Seattle, Miami Beach, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.—have also banned the practice.
Apart from that, however, it is still legal for clinicians in the vast majority of states and cities to subject minors to a form of therapy that can cause “depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior,” according to a position statement issued by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000. That statement also said that “‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure.” Seventeen years later, there’s still no evidence that the practice even “works”—and plenty of evidence that it can cause substantial harm.
But even though the medical evidence against “conversion therapy” has become overwhelming, much of the United States has resisted criminalizing the practice outright. In fact, as California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom observed in a Daily Beast piece last year, conversion therapy has arguably never had more supporters in higher places than it does today.
On a website for his 2000 congressional campaign, Vice President Mike Pence expressed support for redirecting funding for HIV/AIDS prevention to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” As PolitiFact reported, Pence’s spokesperson claimed Pence simply meant “groups that promoted safe sexual practices,” but many LGBT advocates, like executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Rea Carey, saw the position as a “dog whistle” intended to signal support for conversion therapy.
Even if Pence doesn’t personally support conversion therapy, the Republican Party left room for the practice in its 2016 platform with a euphemistic line under the heading “Protecting Individual Conscience in Healthcare” that reads: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”
Asked by the Associated Press last summer whether the GOP supported conversion therapy based on that line, former RNC chairman Reince Priebus said, “It’s not in the platform.”
But as The Daily Beast previously reported, the chief advocate behind the specific wording of that line—particularly the inclusion of the word “therapy”—was Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-LGBT hate group.
“It went from explicit to implicit recognition, saving face for Perkins and giving him, at least, a dog whistle to his community,” pro-LGBT platform committee member Annie Dickerson told The Daily Beast at the time.
Now, with President Trump and Vice President Pence in the White House, supporters of conversion therapy see an opportunity to stave off ignominy and cultural irrelevance, as ABC News reported this week. As part of a 20/20 investigation into the nationwide industry of conversion therapy camps, ABC asked Family Research Council senior fellow Peter Sprigg—who has helped keep conversion therapy legal at the state level—about the future at the federal level.
“I see it as unlikely that any sort of legislative—federal legislative attack upon sexual reorientation therapy will… go anywhere,” he said.
That inaction is likely exactly what Nicolosi would have wanted. In a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday evening, his wife said, “Dr. Nicolosi had always hoped for his legacy as the creator of Reparative Therapy to go on. His career was dedicated to helping people align their lives with their deeply held convictions.”
But even though conversion therapy is still a multistate “cottage industry,” as ABC noted, survivors like Ryan Kendall are living proof the practice is doomed to fail.
Nicolosi famously wrote in his 1991 book Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality, “I do not believe that any man can ever be truly at peace in living out a homosexual orientation.”
He was wrong.
Wrote Kendall in 2012, “There is nothing wrong with who I am.”