With the conservative government of Trump in the US, which will put the lives of thousands of LGBT+ people at risk, and the contrasting climate in bright examples such as that of Malta that made conversion therapy illegal, the debate on the so called “corrective”, “reparative”, or “ex-gay” therapies is now more alive than ever.
What are conversion therapies?
Homosexuality and other identities and experiences under the LGBT+ umbrella, are still today demonized and discriminated against, even in the most progressive of societies. Yet the most important difference with the past is that, even though homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are still huge, homosexuality is not illegal in the majority of the Western world, and it is not considered to be a mental disorder anymore.
Only some decades ago, homosexuality was considered to be a mental disease that could be cured, and it was listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychology of the American Psychiatric Association). Thus, often with the support of the psychiatric and medical community, and more-often-than-not with that of the church, inhumane, harmful treatments with obviously only negative results used to take place. These treatments were what we call “conversion therapies”, since they aimed to “convert” a homosexual person back to heterosexuality. Conversion therapies included torturous, abusive practices, such as lobotomies, electroshock, aversion therapy, and problematic forms of psychoanalytic therapy. You can check out this video to learn more.
Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973, not simply because the psychiatric community decided to, but after long and strenuous battles, negotiations and lobbying held by LGBT rights activists. Even though homosexuality is not in psychiatric manuals anymore, many psychiatrists and psychologists still treat it as a mental disorder because of their own ideological bias, and unfortunately conversion therapy still takes place, as it is legal in many American states and European countries. In addition, trans identities are still pathologized, and many trans and Intersex individuals undergo psychological or medical “treatments” that do much more harm than good.
In the 60s conversion therapy was big. Psychiatrists like Hadden, Bieber and Socarides were some of the most influential names that effectively convinced the wider public that homosexuality is a pathological problem that occurs due to both innate and socialized psychological “mishaps”, and can be treated (even though Freud himself had been opposed to such efforts and deemed bisexuality normal and inherent in childhood and adolescence).
These psychiatrists, however, were facing active resistance by LGBT rights activists who protested during lectures. A gay rights activist Franklin Kameny had said: “This is not science, Dr. Hadden; this is faith.” In the late 60s homosexual-affirming psychotherapeutic centers and therapy systems started operating by several LGB-friendly professionals.
Today, efforts to “treat homosexuality” are not apparent in the discourse around mental health as much as they are on religious grounds.
Many of these groups have been closed after protests and issued apologies for the harm done on many of the participants, but others still operate. Both the National Association of Social Workers in 1994 and the American Psychiatric Association in 1998 have publicly stated the negative outcomes of conversion therapies, such as depression, anxiety and self-destructive tendencies, but have not managed to legally ban them.
There are many stories and experiences of individuals who have gone through conversion therapies and today stand against it, trying to sensitize others against its abusive techniques and harmful results. Many forms of therapy have been physically painful or psychologically damaging, or humiliating, derogatory and invasive. If it’s not clear enough already, conversion therapies don’t work, as in, they don’t make people straight by making them hate themselves.
Religious camps trying to “pray the gay away” by simply forcing teenagers to conform to society’s conservative gender norms are in the worst case extremely harmful and in the very best case as ridiculous(ly tragic and tragically ridiculous) as the movie “But I’m a Cheerleader”.
However, all this is not laughing material. People have reported becoming suicidal because of these camps. It is a horrible, abusive tradition that needs to stop immediately.
What is happening in the US right now?
The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act supporting the ban of conversion therapy for minors was announced in April 2015 but it was not passed. There have been efforts to get rid of conversion therapy on a state level. The states that have managed to ban conversion therapy are California, Vermont, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and Illinois, as well as the cities of Seattle, Miami Beach, Cincinnati and Washington D.C. The attempts held in Texas failed in 2015, based on arguments for the freedom of religious expression.
The latest bill that made conversion therapy illegal was in New Mexico where Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill earlier this month, according to the Human Rights Campaign. It is a law that applies to the fields of physical and mental health, but not to religious groups and actions.
Democrat Sen. Jacob Candelaria said that the bill’s passing was a “historic action” for the protection of all children.
“In New Mexico, we value and celebrate every child for who they are. I want to thank Governor Martinez for having the courage to stand up for the simple truth that every LGBTQ kid in New Mexico is born perfect. I also want to thank the victims of conversion ‘therapy’ who came forward to support this bill. Their stories did not fall on deaf ears. They turned their suffering into a force for good, and because of them, and for them, we have made history.”
However, the big picture in the US doesn’t leave the LGBT population so optimistic. Vice President Mike Pence had made a statement in 2000 on his campaign website, opposing equal marriage and anti-discrimination laws for the protection of homosexual people, followed by his opposition to government funding of “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Pence’s spokesman, Marc Lotter, supported that it has been a misinterpretation that Pence supports conversion therapy with this statement and that he had been calling instead for federal funds to go to “groups that promoted safe sexual practices”, although the LGBT population is seriously concerned. Lotter didn’t explain what kind of organizations Pence was speaking about in first place.
Which European countries have banned conversion therapy?
Malta is the first and currently the only country in Europe that has voted for conversion therapy to become illegal. Malta is number one on the rankings of Rainbow Europe when it comes to LGBTI rights. More specifically they have an Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Bill that orders jail time for people offering conversion therapy. Malta has also depathologized trans identities and has a bill that allows Trans and Intersex people to use the correct legal gender marker.
As for the UK, a petition to make conversion therapy illegal was dismissed by Theresa May’s government about a month ago because it didn’t get a sufficient number of signatures, but the government claims they have recognized the issue and are working towards a non-discriminatory direction.