On June 26, 2015, gay marriage was legalized in all 50 states, and because of the ruling, discussions on homophobia were suppressed under the misguided concept that prejudice against LGBT people was over. On November 7, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, and America once again saw the presence of homophobia in its mainstream politics and culture. After a statement released in Pence’s 2000 congressional campaign resurfaced, one particular practice has worked its way into conversation: conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy, also referred to as “reparative therapy,” is a set of practices intended to change someone’s sexual orientation, sometimes stemming from the religious standpoint that homosexuality is immoral or unnatural. Despite the refutation that the practice has any basis in science by major organizations such as the American College of Physicians and the American Medical Association, conversion therapists continue to argue that their pseudo-psychological tactics can be successful in turning previously-identified gay/bi people straight. In 45 states, minors can be subjected to this treatment without their consent. Tactics used by conversion therapists can include electro-shock therapy, and there are allegations from ex-clients of physical and sexual abuse. While this is obviously very damaging, there’s also no evidence that it’s an effective practice, as the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry has stated, “there is no medically valid basis for attempting to prevent homosexuality.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective.” In a 2009 study conducted by the APA, the risks of conversion therapy include depression and suicidality, along with substance abuse, hopelessness, and other emotional trauma.
Conversion therapy survivors have confirmed this, with some writing in a statement on conversiontherapysurvivors.org: “Many of us sacrificed loving same-sex relationships, risked opposite-sex marriages, and/or remained alone in hopelessness. These toxic messages led many of us down a path of self-destructive behaviors, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and in some cases, attempted suicide.” Survivors have called for action, asking “for what a mindful and accountable society should demand”: a ban on conversion therapy.
However, it is important to note that the tactics used by conversion/reparative therapists vary. David Pickup, a licensed family therapist who also works as a reparative therapist, explained that his practice would never include methods that would encourage shaming someone for their sexual attraction; he added that he does not condone camps, aversion therapy, or electroshock techniques—describing them as “inauthentic” means. He makes sure his clients want to change their attraction with a full assessment, instead of pressuring them into therapy which could lead to emotional damage.
As to his clients who are minors, he added, “it injures them not to allow them to get authentic reparative therapy.” Reparative therapy is based on the concept that experiencing same-gender attraction comes from a place of childhood trauma, and with this belief, he sees it as more harmful to deny minors the opportunity to experience reparative therapy. He explained that in his experience, and “anecdotally,” reparative therapy has been beneficial to men who feel confused about their feelings of attraction.
While it seems cruel to deny treatment for unwanted feelings, homosexuality has not been considered a disorder by the DSM since 1973. It’s also important to note that not all reparative therapists use abusive tactics, but to dismiss therapy that does as inauthentic and therefore irrelevant also dismisses the experience of ex-clients who feel damaged by the practice. The very idea that attraction to the same gender can be cured because it isn’t inborn contributes to a culture of homophobia, and even if tactics do not include “shaming,” the homophobia that is so ingrained in our society will inherently continue to shame LGBT people for their sexual orientation and gender. There is a fundamental sexualization of LGBT people’s experiences by reducing same gender attraction to mere sexual urges. The concept of conversion therapy, and any attempts to change someone’s attraction, is based on the idea that being gay/bi is about sex, instead of a combination of sexuality and love; these ideas not only add to the justification of homophobia, but also demonize all LGBT people under the same assumptions of those who use the Bible to persecute the community.
The practice of conversion therapy has no place in a progressive society, and with the fight for equality based on sexual orientation, we can no longer ignore it. As an anonymous survivor of conversion therapy told The Huffington Post, “we were no longer people at the end of the program.” Allowing it to exist is dehumanizing, and as a nation, we need to do more than stand against it: we need to take action. If you’re interested in this cause, organizations that support LGBT youth include The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), The Trevor Project, and The Point Foundation.