For eight years, Lloyd Willey, a licensed marriage and family therapist, allegedly promised Katherine McCobb that with enough of his therapy, he could make her straight.
Now McCobb is suing him for consumer fraud, only the second time a conversion therapy lawsuit has been filed under a consumer fraud protection law and the first time it’s being used against a licensed practitioner. Last week the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a complaint in California against Willey on her behalf.
McCobb started seeking therapy from Willey when she was 25-years old. While it is illegal for licensed practitioners to perform sexual orientation conversion therapy in California, this only applies to the treatment of minors.
According to the complaint, McCobb first started seeing Willey in 2006 in hopes that she might “develop more self-confidence at work and in her personal life.”
Willey, however, convinced her that these problems stemmed from her sexual orientation as a lesbian. He allegedly told her that she was “biologically designed” to be heterosexual and that with enough therapy, the “neuropathways” that made her desire women would “atrophy.”
Willey allegedly told her he needed to “rewire” her brain and that her sexual orientation was the result of past abuse. According to the complaint, Willey shamed McCobb during a group session when she began a relationship with another woman, making her feel “emotionally paralyzed.” He later pushed McCobb into starting a relationship with one of his male patients.
“I trusted my therapist,” McCobb said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “I blamed myself for not being able to change and overcome being attracted to women, which he reinforced by telling me that I needed to stay in therapy and keep following his advice. It wasn’t until I began seeing another therapist that I realized that what he had been telling me was totally false and unethical. I hope no one else ever has to go through this, and therapists should not be able to trick patients into paying thousands of dollars for harmful, bogus treatment.”
McCobb did not seek out therapy for any reason related to her sexual orientation, and she certainly did not seek out conversion therapy, according to Shannon Minter, NCLR’s legal director.
“She sought therapy for the reasons many people do, to increase her self-confidence and improve her personal and professional relationships,” he said. “It was Willey who immediately, on her first visit, fixated on her sexual orientation and told her that her attraction to women was caused by sexual abuse and that she needed to change.
“She continued to see him because she trusted that he knew what he was doing and that he was giving her reliable information and advice. He repeatedly told her that she needed to keep seeing him and that if she would continue to work with him and follow his advice, eventually she would ‘rewire’ her brain become straight. She believed him and blamed herself for not being able to change.”
The Daily Beast was unable to reach Willey for comment.
The complaint accuses Willey of defrauding McCobb of more than $70,000 for falsely promising that he could change her sexual orientation, and providing her with scientifically disproven therapy over the course of eight years.
“Long story short, we want to get her money back,” Minter told The Daily Beast.
“It is really important that we also take advantage of other legal protections that are not specifically about conversion therapy, but about any type of business from defrauding the public,” he said. “We want to get justice for Kate and she wants to make sure that nobody else goes through this. We want to make sure that anybody else who has been harmed in this way knows that they have a legal remedy.”
So-called conversion therapy, sometimes called reparative therapy, is based on the view that homosexuality is a mental health disorder, something that has been rejected by all major health professions.
This “therapy” has long been discredited by mainstream medical and mental health organizations, including the American Psychological Association, which has frequently expressed concern about the scientific and ethical basis for such treatments. Joseph Nicolosi, the pioneer of “conversion therapy,” died in March aged 70.
“So-called reparative therapies are aimed at ‘fixing’ something that is not a mental illness and therefore does not require therapy,” said former APA president, Barry Anton, in a 2015 statement. “There is insufficient scientific evidence that they work, and they have the potential to harm the client.”
Clinton Anderson, the director of the APA’s sexual orientation and gender diversity office, reiterated to The Daily Beast the lack of scientific evidence showing that these “therapies” work or are in any ways beneficial.
“People who have had these therapies, retrospectively, if they had them at adolescence and early adulthood, then later in life they may say that was really harmful to them,” he said. “That it made their shame, their depression, their anxiety, their self-esteem worse, not better.”
A similar civil case was brought in 2015 against the New Jersey-based non-profit, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing. Like in McCobb’s case, the life-coaching organization was sued for consumer fraud on the basis that it is impossible to change someone’s sexual orientation. The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding them $72,400 in damages.
There have been some national efforts to outlaw conversion therapy, though none have so far been successful. In 2015, then-President Obama released a statement expressing his support for statewide bans against the practice, but did not call for a federal ban.
Earlier this year Senate Democrats introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Protection Act, which would prohibit conversion therapy from being provided for monetary compensation. A similar bill was introduced last year but was never given a hearing.
Despite slow-moving national efforts, conversion therapy has been outlawed in a growing number of states in the past few years. In addition to California, nine other states have laws prohibiting licensed professionals from providing conversion therapy to minors, with Rhode Island becoming the fourth state this year to outlaw it just this week.
Last February, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo restricted conversion therapy through executive action. Several cities where there are no statewide laws have also passed similar legislation on a local level.
“[Conversion therapy] is more common than people think,” Minter said. “I often hear people say, ‘Oh this doesn’t happen anymore’ and it’s very frustrating to hear that because it absolutely does still happen and it is not uncommon. The fact that it is happening today in Berkeley, you can bet it’s happening in other places.”