Conversion Therapy: Trying to Fix Someone Who Isn’t Broken

By Joseph Jones



“For over two years, I sat on a couch and endured emotionally painful sessions with a counselor. I was told that my faith community rejected my sexuality; that I was the abomination we had heard about in Sunday school; that I was the only gay person in the world; that it was inevitable I would get H.I.V. and AIDS. But it didn’t stop with these hurtful talk-therapy sessions. The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body. I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.”

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Sam Brinton chronicles his horrific experience of being a patient of conversion therapy, a controversial practice which promises to correct those with same-sex attractions.  Brinton’s parents as Southern Baptist Missionaries believed this practice could “cure” their son of his bisexuality.  Although he has taken strides to walk through life as an out and proud genderfluid bisexual, he still carries the pain and trauma of the abuse he was subjected to, and his relationship with his family has suffered irreparable damage.  After all, how could one fully forgive their parents who told them they were going to burn in hell for eternity for being who they are, and then sending them to someone who promises to fix their “compulsion”?

TC, a 19 year old gay man spoke anonymously to The Huffington Post about his own experience with the same type of treatment, “The first step ― which usually lasted six months ― [is] where they “deconstruct us as a person.” Their tactics still haunt me. Aversion therapy, shock therapy, harassment and occasional physical abuse. Their goal was to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ (most of us were gay, but the entire spectrum was represented), and they knew what they were doing.... The second step of the program, they ‘rebuilt us in their image.’ They removed us of everything that made us a unique person, and instead made us a walking, talking, robot for Jesus. They taught us everything we knew. How to eat, talk, walk, dress, believe, even breathe. We were no longer people at the end of the program.” TC was only able to end treatment after pretending to be rehabilitated of his homosexual desires.

David H. Pickup , a Reparative Therapist and board member of the National Association of Research and Therapy for Homosexuality, is one such arbiter who believes he can “heal wounds and unmet needs” to “resolve the causes of homosexuality.”  Pickup believes “Affirmation of gender identity, Approval (unconditional love) from primary male relationships, and Affection, are inborn needs. If these needs are unfulfilled, homosexual attractions in puberty and adulthood can result. Reparative Therapy helps a boy or man fulfill and "take in" these needs. This can result in the dissipation of homosexual feelings and prepare him to move toward heterosexual attractions for women.”

Pickup also argues that, “for the pre-homosexual boy, and for adult men, bullying and repetitive shaming of gender identity from primary male relationships, frequently embed this soul-wrenching Shame into the mind of the struggler” and thus the individual’s sexual attractions gravitate towards members of the same-sex because “maleness becomes an object to the struggler instead of something wonderful that is subjectively experienced.  The result?...In puberty, when sexual hormones ‘kick in,’ masculinity is objectified and sexualized.” Pickup fails to recognize that the shame associated with homosexuality is not a cause of same-sex attraction, but rather, a symptom of living in a society, community, or being a member of a family that will never fully accept them for who they are.

The controversial practice of conversion or reparative therapy has been widely discredited and deemed defunct by several medical and scientific organizations who have adopted a stance of opposition against this psychological abuse and torture which is deceptively disguised as healing.

The American Medical Association says of reparative therapy, “Our AMA… opposes, the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."

The World Psychiatric Association has found “There is no sound scientific evidence that innate sexual orientation can be changed. Furthermore, so-called treatments of homosexuality can create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish, and they can be potentially harmful… WPA considers same-sex attraction, orientation, and behavior as normal variants of human sexuality. It recognizes the multifactorial causation of human sexuality, orientation, behavior, and lifestyle. It acknowledges the lack of scientific efficacy of treatments that attempt to change sexual orientation and highlights the harm and adverse effects of such therapies’ ”

The American Psychiatric Association’s official statement on reparative therapy includes the various potential risks which include “depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient. Many patients who have undergone “reparative therapy” relate that they were inaccurately told that homosexuals are lonely, unhappy individuals who never achieve acceptance or satisfaction. The possibility that the person might achieve happiness and satisfying interpersonal relationships as a gay man or lesbian are not presented, nor are alternative approaches to dealing with the effects of societal stigmatization discussed...”

Research shows the disastrous repercussions of reparative therapy and the psychological effects it has on those that are indoctrinated to conform to a life of normal, conventional, and moral behavior free of sin and impurity. According to an examination of family acceptance of LGBTQ youth by San Francisco State University, highly rejected LGBTQ young people are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression, more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and more than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs.

One highly publicized case from the 1970’s demonstrates how the shame and anguish caused by reparative therapy destroys the very fiber of a person’s being and undermines their ability to live happily, and ultimately extinguishes the light of their life.  Psychologist George Reker’s treated a 5-year-old boy named Kirk Murphy who exhibited behavior typically associated with femininity such as a preference for playing with girl’s toys.  Dr. Reker instructed the child’s parents to reward “masculinity” and punish “femininity” by ignoring or spanking him in order to prevent him from growing up as a gay man.  Citing his correction of Murphy as an of example of a success story of reparative therapy, Reker published an article which was used as a shining example to sell the idea to parents who were struggling to come to terms with their children with same-sex attractions.  But, Reker failed to “Murphy”, who did in fact go on to live the gay lifestyle.  Because of the torture he was put through, he never learned to full accept himself as a gay person and attempted to take his life at 17, and ultimately died from suicide at the age of 38.  Had Reker and Murphy’s parents not intervened and allowed Kirk Murphy to come to terms with his own identity and find acceptance with himself, he would have gone on to live a long and healthy life and might still be with us today.

Bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination has been a long sordid history in the U.S. and reparative therapy has been ingrained in that history, with documented instances of efforts to correct same-sex desires and non-conforming gender identities dating as far back as the 1890’s and all the way to the present.  And in that time countless LGBTQ people have, and will be, entrapped and forced to try and surrender their true identities by renouncing their sin. In a January 2018 study, The Williams Institute estimates “698, 000 LGBT adults (18-59) in the U.S have received conversion therapy, including about 350, 000 LGBT adults who received treatment as adolescents.”  Additionally, the organization also estimates, “20, 000 LGBT youth (ages 13-17) will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 41 states that currently do not ban the practice.”

At the time of that study only 8 states and the District of Columbia enacted laws or regulations to protect minors from this unjust practice.  But now 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed such legislation.  California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia lead by example on the path to all 50 states making it illegal for pastors, therapists, and psychologists from attempting to turn people away from the LGBT lifestyle. A growing number of municipalities have put in place similar protections, including cities and counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, Florida, New York and Arizona.

One state has taken one step closer to joining those states which ban conversion therapy.  The New Hampshire House passed a bill 179-171 which prohibits counseling service to children under the age of 18 “relative to conversion therapy seeking to change a person’s sexual orientation.” Democratic state Rep. Ed Butler said in a statement after the House vote. “Conversion therapy is a harmful and damaging practice which attempts to shame young people into changing their sexual orientation or identity. This legislation simply forbids licensed practitioners from practicing conversion therapy on minor children.”  The last hurdle the bill must face is the upcoming Senate vote. However, that will be a big hurdle to overcome.  Passage of the bill in the House comes after the measure being voted down in the House and the Senate last month, with latecomers approving the bill to revisited. If the Bill has not gained the support it needs in the Senate, conversion therapy will be allowed to continue in New Hampshire for an undetermined future.  

The legality of conversion therapy and the question of whether it has a place in the future is particularly concerning considering many of Vice President Mike Pence’s endorsement of conversion therapy. The following is a statement from the archived version of Pence’s 2000 congressional campaign website: “Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to 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.”  

Although not blatantly specific about the intention of the phrase “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior”, and has been attempted to be played off as a call for federal funds to “be directed to groups that promote safe sexual practices”, others like Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, interpreted it as code for conversion therapy.

A line in the 2016 Republican Party platform was also interpreted by critics as the party standing firm on the continued use of conversion therapy.  The passage stated the party supported the, “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”  When pressed on the issue by reporters, Reince Preibus claimed the language was not in reference to conversion therapy, with LGBT groups unconvinced.  

The Republican Party’s tone differs extremely from Democrats.  While it seems Republicans tactfully support, or at the very least are silent on the matter, Democrats have been more forward with their condemning of the practice.  President Obama called for an end to conversion therapy in 2015 after transgender teen Leelah Alcorn committed suicide and published her suicide note on Tumblr, describing her struggle as a conversion therapy patient.

“When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong….My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took a stance against conversion therapy and stood with LGBTQ youth when he issued an executive order to ban the practice in his state.  

“Conversion therapy is a hateful and fundamentally flawed practice that is counter to everything this state stands for. New York has been at the forefront of acceptance and equality for the LGBTQ community for decades – and today we are continuing that legacy and leading by example. We will not allow the misguided and the intolerant to punish LGBTQ young people for simply being who they are,” Cuomo proclaimed as with a stroke of the pen, he protected LGBTQ youth from those who wish to make them in their own image of decent and conventional conduct.

Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon also spoke strongly in favor of LGBTQ youth when her state banned gay-to-straight therapy. "There are many things that young people need, but breaking them down based on their sexual or gender identity is not one of them — and in fact, it's inexcusable. Our young people deserve acceptance, support, and love. To the young people who question their identities, suffer from bullying, or struggle with what it means to come out, today is your day. Your voices have been heard."

The subject of gay-to-straight therapy was showcased in a film, which when presented at the Sundance Film Festival was awarded the grand jury prize. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, follows a young teenager who is sent to a conversion therapy camp after caught engaging in sexual acts with another girl by her conservative aunt and uncle.  The lead actress of the film, Chloë Grace Moretz spoke about the importance of the movie in today’s political climate at the film’s premiere.“Mike Pence tried to get it state-funded when he was Senator, so it is a very real problem.”

Another major film of the same topic is set to be released September 28th, 2018.  Based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased will bring to life Conley’s real life story of being a gay teenager forced to undergo conversion therapy, or else lose the respect or acceptance of his family, friends, or church.  Playing a role in the film is openly gay recording artist, Troye Sivan.  A vocal advocate for  LGBTQ rights, Sivan hopes the film will change people's minds and enlighten them of the ills of ex-gay therapy.  In an appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show, he said on the film, “It’s a matter of educating people and that’s what I really really hope this movie is going to help people do.”  He went on to say he hopes the film will help the audience,“Learn more about it. Realise that it’s been proven to not be effective and hopefully start making changes because it’s still happening all over.”

Conversion therapy is fundamentally flawed because it instills the patient with a sense of inadequacy and inferiority in association with their sexual orientation and gender identity.  Being a teenager is a time of confusion, uncertainty, and doubt.  This sense of vulnerability is even more present for LGBTQ youth, who during this complicated and tumultuous time period, are come to terms with themselves in a world which ultimately accepts heterosexuality as the norm, and anything else as abnormal.  As a result of this bias, they are more likely to experience depression, engage in high risk behaviors, and have suicidal tendencies. The psychological stress caused by being told they are going to hell, never achieve happiness and success, or fall in love, while being subjected to forms of harsh physical and mental torture is enough to push them right off the edge and into an abyss they will never be able to climb back out of.

Stop telling LGBTQ youth they are deviants who need to be corrected or repaired. Instead we should be emboldening and encouraging them to a level of exultation where they feel comfortable to live as their true self. Stop tearing them down, victimizing them, and making them feel unworthy.  Allow them the freedom of complete autonomy over their own life and free to decide their own fate, pursue their own hopes and dreams, and find happiness with whoever they fall in love with.

The irony of conversion therapy is, LGBTQ youth are seen as broken, and needed repair, but in the process,  they are broken even more to try and be reconstructed to be the kind of individual which is more pleasing and less threatening to those who fail to accept them as they are.  In their blind ignorance they fail to see that they were never broken at all, and were perfect just the way they were.