When the topic of “conversion” or “ex-gay” therapy comes up, it invokes images of sad, lonely, and desperate gay men and women praying to cease being who they are. It can conjure the image of a domineering religious figure shouting to the heavens of hell and demons over a terrified child.
Others, especially in the LGBT media, revel in the anticipation of catching well-known ex-gays in sexually compromising positions. But for the most part, the practice seems like a relic from another time, and only a small number of the religiously devout ever encounter it. In 2014, only 8 percent of Americans believed the therapy was effective.
LGBT advocacy groups, however, have for many years fixated on the practice as a foundational threat to LGBT young people and have sought to ban it nationwide. Recently the Washington Post published a detailed history of the practice. The article argues that conversion therapy is essentially a civil rights issue, going so far as to claim its existence threatens American LGBT people’s citizenship: “Americans cannot be fully equal members of society so long as a practice exists that aims to convert them — implying that there is something wrong with being LGBTQ.”
In 2012, California became the first state to ban the practice on minors, and 11 other states have followed suit. Most recently, New Hampshire sent a bill banning the practice to the governor to sign. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) activist group celebrated with a tweet stating, “Children across the Granite State deserve to live their lives authentically and should never be subjected to the abusive practice of so-called conversion therapy.” Most leading medical organizations oppose the practice and have endorsed the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which would make “conversion therapy” illegal nationwide.
What Is ‘Conversion Therapy,’ Anyway?
The practice consists of a broad range of concepts but is essentially designed to change an individual’s perception of sexual attraction, primarily from homosexual to heterosexual. These methods mostly involve variations of talk therapy, similar to addiction therapy or behavior modification therapy. In the past, aversion treatments that applied negative stimulation such as vomiting to force the mind to reject certain images or ideas.
In a religious context, it is often considered a spiritual effort to change thinking patterns or desires. Hypnosis therapy is used in many modern applications. According to the Williams Institute, 698,000 LGBT adults in the United States have received some form of conversion therapy, either from a licensed professional or religious leader, in their lives. This represents about 5 percent of the LGBT population.
Most of the research on the effects of the practice rely on anecdotal reporting, as the Williams Institute study did. Adults are asked about their experiences and the resulting negative consequences. As a result, as HRC describes it, “Minors are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”
The primary argument highlights the position of all major medical organizations that the practice is ineffective and merely results in participants feeling victimized, helpless, and rejected. Based on the assumption that those who experienced the therapy were rejected by their families, these experiences in victimization are very negative.
My Experience with ‘Conversion Therapy’ Seems Typical
In my mid-teens, I attempted “reparative therapy,” as it was called at the time. I worked with a therapist to deal with intense depression and shame over my risky sexual behaviors. The therapist viewed homosexuality as a protective adaptation to trauma and a confusion of affection and so on, and attempted to guide me towards moving my sexual fixation to normal teenage pursuits and addressing my sexuality later as an adult.
She did not believe I was gay, and we spent a great deal of time discussing all the possible reasons for both my attraction and my responses to it. Shortly afterward, I began working with a local pastor who agreed to have weekly meetings with me to discuss my “spiritual struggle.” The sessions essentially focused on prayer and emotional and intellectual discipline from a Christian perspective.
While I wouldn’t call the practice abusive, it certainly wasn’t beneficial, as it largely resulted in me keeping feelings and behaviors more secretive. I also acted out in more risky ways. I felt a great deal of shame for failing at my spiritual goals and essentially spent several months more obsessed over my internal experience.
I wouldn’t recommend the experience, but I certainly wouldn’t characterize it in the extreme language LGBT advocates often use. For example, a well-known drag queen named Dusty Ray Bottoms detailed his experience in an article for Newsweek. He describes his church praying with him and asking him about his feelings, thoughts, and fears shortly after he accidentally came out to his family. He then pursued weekly spiritual meetings with his pastor.
This Subject Requires Education, Not Legislation
This demonstrates the frustration in discussing this topic. LGBT advocacy groups rely on fear tactics to push legal solutions to a social issue. The Williams Institute study asserts, as cited by the HRC, “an estimated 20,000 LGBTQ minors in states without protections will be subjected to conversion therapy by a licensed healthcare professional if state officials fail to act.”
Transgender individuals were categorized as experiencing conversion therapy if they had ever spoken to a therapist or religious leader who told them they were not transgender or attempted to persuade them not to transition, increasing the percentage related to a different form of sexual expression than homosexuality. This estimate is also based on the self-reporting of adults and assuming the same proportion of LGBT youth, adjusted for modern population growth in the category, will experience it at the same rate. Yet society today is markedly more accepting of homosexuality and, as we saw above, very few Americans think conversion therapy might be “effective.”
Let’s make a comparison to another therapeutic activity lots of people participate in. People magazine featured an episode of “I Am Jazz” where the teenage transgender reality star underwent a past life regression, a combination of hypnosis and talk therapy that has participants delve into purported past lives for insight into current emotional pain. The hypnotist instructed Jazz Jennings to “go to” Jennings’ former self’s last day and recall its pain and regret. Jennings broke down into sobbing anxiety over imagining a past life as a gay boy denied true love.
In the United Kingdom, a man committed suicide after visiting a psychic who encouraged him to pursue his suicidal desires as part of his spiritual experience. An Elle.com article detailed the pain and struggle of a young woman who sought the help of psychics for more than a year, spending thousands of dollars, and experiencing intense depression, anxiety, and hopelessness as a result.
Like these people, 15 percent of Americans say they have visited a fortuneteller or psychic. If the anti-conversion therapy argument relies on paid therapy as consumer fraud, the full spectrum of New Age services should be equally at issue. In the same way, any service promising an extraordinary and otherwise impossible life-changing result has the potential to induce severe and negative reactions in vulnerable people when they fail.
Let’s Consider the Potential Unintended Consequences
There is nothing particularly unique in conversion therapy techniques that indicate it requires specialized regulation. Rather than understanding it within the realm of their own arguments, LGBT activists seem simply fixated on denouncing any attempts or consideration of changing sexual orientation or gender identity.
To this end, it seems their efforts may result in more genuinely dangerous risks for LGBT youth or adults seeking alternative options for unwanted feelings or desires. Licensing and payment systems provide transparency and public scrutiny. If a professional is required to maintain a public business with certification, he or she is more likely to follow the rules.
There is a difference between answering a Craigslist ad for crystal healing therapy and visiting an acupuncturist and paying with your health insurance. By reducing the options to unregulated religious intervention, LGBT activists are positioning LGBT youth into the very position of vulnerability and danger they profess to oppose.
Even to more conservative Christians like evangelicals, in younger Christians 51 percent say homosexuality should be accepted. Churches that embrace ex-gay interventions may be far more on the fringe than in previous generations. Parents who believe homosexuality is a spiritual issue that must be intercepted through religious means will simply move from official therapeutic paths to less conventional, and less transparent, religious options after conversion therapy bans.
Furthermore, in their efforts to expunge the very idea of “correcting” sexual orientation and now gender identity from society, these activists would impose potential restrictions on speech and religious expression outside of the therapist’s office. Even the sale of books on the topic of binary gender identity or a Christian or Jewish speaker discussing same-sex attraction or transgenderism as anything other than legitimate permanent characteristics could be legally impacted.
LGBT Leaders Are Stuck in the Past
It is also important to note that many gay individuals and members of groups such as GetTheLOut view transgender gender-change procedures as conversion therapy. It must always be remembered that progressive policy never stops at the original intended purpose and will always expand and limit freedom.
All this never should have reached legislative intervention. When I came out as a teenager at the turn of the century, society was still discussing the possibility of a gay teenager. Nearly 20 years later, we are discussing the gender identity of toddlers. The leaders of the LGBT movement are trapped in another era and the consequences of their continued obsession over old battles is beginning to affect society in ways we did not imagine before.
Imagine a future, far more real than we might recognize, where a child recently learning of gender identity options asks if he too is transgendered and no professional adult around him legally allowed to tell him “no” or guide him in another direction. Without reasonable limitation, progressive laws once designed to protect LGBT youth from perceived abusive and unethical medical practices will quickly grow to silence any form of dissent of officially approved gender identity theory.
This will include ideas promoted by gays and lesbians just a decade or so ago as scientific fact. The law should never be used to validate a political ideology, and the effort to ban conversion therapy has proven this more relevant than ever.