Gay conversion therapy is still happening

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Pray the gay away, ex-gay ministries, and homosexual re-conditioning – all form a deceptive and dangerous homophobic rhetoric masquerading as medical treatment. These therapies claim to rid an individual of their perverse gay ‘demons’; a means to free them to pursue the ‘rightful’ union between man and woman.

On paper, these concepts are hard to believe – fashioned on archaic barbarism, and far more fitting of the questionable psychological advances within the Freudian era. Yet, conversion therapy is far from an echo of the past. With the current political hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community under republican leadership in the U.S, notably from Vice President Mike Pence, there is a sharper need for discussion on gay ‘reparative’ therapies and their legality on a global scale.

But what does conversion therapy entail exactly? Historically, therapies were designed to rid (mostly gay men) of the “pathological condition” of being gay; something deemed a curable mental disorder manifesting in same-sex attraction. Within the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries these cures entailed psychoanalysis, electric shock therapy, chemical castration, or “negative reinforcement”, which seeks to recondition thinking by exposing someone to negative stimuli when they are thinking of or expressing homosexuality.

This homophobic logic has been re-fashioned to produce modern therapies that tend to focus more on ‘spiritual’ counselling, often with techniques that look for answers in the narrative of an individual’s childhood. Examples of this can be found in the work of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Co-founded and lead under the recently deceased Joseph Nicolosi, for NARTH homosexuality is regarded as sexually deviant behaviour stemming from a lack of affection from the parent of the same sex. Therapy tends to draw out childhood conflict and turn to prayer and religion for ‘healing’. New Republic reports usage of “confrontational” and aversion therapy: both which involve inducing pain and abuse.

NARTH works to try and prevent homosexuality within children by offering parental advice on how to heal early signs of ‘prehomosexuality’ or gender non-conformity in what is mainly young boys. Or as summarised by Nicolosi on the organisation Truth Wins Out’s website: “We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.”

Another is the national ‘fellowship’ of Brothers on a Road Less Travelled, offering a 15-week series of intensive group coaching sessions for males in Germany, Israel, Poland, France, and the US. It’s advertised for those “on a journey to diminish or make peace with their unwanted or incongruous same-sex attractions” – quite ironically through its shared goals of peace and love. In fact, the next conference is being held in Pennsylvania this year.

It’s important to remember as there are no ‘treatment’ guidelines per se, there are plenty of clandestine organisations which employ illegal, violent methods in an attempt to convert vulnerable individuals. A testament to this is the survivors’ stories of abuse.

In the run-up to the US elections last year, one man bravely recounted his experiences in an interview with the Huffington Post. As a means of highlighting the impending danger of the Republican Party on LGTBQ+ rights, TC told of the “literal torture” he experienced whilst undertaking aversion therapy in a church basement in 2012. He described the differing stages of treatment. First participants were ‘deconstructed’, in a process designed “to get us to hate ourselves” for being LGBTQ+. This involved “shock therapy, harassment and occasional physical abuse”, in sessions that ran every weekday for six months. The second stage included reconstructing the participants in ‘their’ image. “They retaught us everything we knew. How to eat, talk, walk, dress, believe, even breathe. We were no longer people at the end of the program.”

This recurring mental, and at times physical mistreatment led to few of his peers within the programme to commit suicide. TC was 15 years of age when he underwent this therapy.

It is easy to assume that in the UK we are shielded from such barbarism, and whilst the US does prove more extreme, the BBC highlights a 2009 review which found that 16% of British therapists had tried to perform gay conversion therapy. Most telling is the ongoing work of Northern Irish ‘charity’ Core Issues Trust, who offer help to “individuals voluntarily seeking to leave homosexual behaviours and feelings”. In 2013, this organisation were embroiled in a legal dispute with then-Mayor Boris Johnson after being denied the right to place an ad on London buses that read “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!” in response to a campaign run by LGBT+ rights organisation Stonewall in the previous year.

Recently, this issue has been brought to light once again through statements uncovered from an archived version of the website for Mike Pence’s 2000 congressional campaign. The site declares that taxpayer money shouldn’t be given to “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus [sic]” but instead that “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior”.

Additionally, whilst Pence was editor of the Indiana Policy Review Journal, a December 1993 issue condemned homosexual journalists’ lack of objectivity because “gaydom” is a “pathological condition”. Pence, through his press secretary Marc Lotter, recently denied this as a “mischaracterisation” of language.

Though many LGBTQ+ groups felt dissatisfied with Pence’s response, the re-surfacing of his statements has had some positive effects. It’s provided a platform for discussion on the legality of gay conversion therapy, predominantly in terms of minors. This was after a proposal was approved in the July 2016 Republican convention, stating support for “the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.” TC’s story, as one of many, is a sharp reminder of the effects of said ‘right’.

Currently, in the Europe and the US, any psychological treatments attempting to change sexual orientation are heavily opposed by national psychiatry institutions, yet are only officially classed as illegal in Malta, while just six American states (plus D.C) have laws to prevent the use of the therapy on minors. However, we are witnessing progress. This year, several bills were introduced to municipal legislatures such as Hawaii and Florida, whilst attempts to completely prohibit therapies for minors have been initiated in a further eight states.

The fall-out in America has had a direct effect on the UK. The Royal College of General Practitioners issued a “statement of solidarity” in January 2017, affirming their opposition to the “unethical” practice of gay conversion therapy and emphasising that “Sexual orientations and gender identities are not mental health disorders”. Headway has also been made in Taiwan, which in January 2017 announced its plan to completely ban the therapy for minors and adults alike.

Gay conversion therapy is a foul symptom of a more generalised homophobia – an inability for certain areas of society to accept homosexuality. We can only hope that the more open, frank discussion there is on this matter, the more that can be done to combat prejudices, and ultimately for gay conversion therapy to be made illegal everywhere in the world.

Featured image © It Equals


History graduate with a passion for research and writing, especially human and animal rights. A proud mum to two pugs.