In 2018, Why Is Conversion Therapy Still A Thing?
What Is Conversion Therapy?
According to LGBTQ charity Stonewall, conversion therapy “refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or to suppress another person’s gender identity.” The ‘treatment’ is based on the assumption that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a mental illness that can be ‘cured’ through therapy. It was coined by psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, who co-founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality in 1992.
Despite being largely discredited by many health organisations including the NHS, the practice still exists and many people continue to be subjected to it. A 2009 UK survey of 1,300 mental health professionals found more than 200 people had been offered some form of conversion therapy, and a report in early 2018 by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimated that nearly 57,000 American LGBTQ youths will undergo some form of it before they turn 18.
The actual practice of conversion therapy can come in many forms. Because it's not a recognised form psychological treatment, there are no professional standards for how it is conducted, which means that those who practice it are free to try plenty of morally dubious methods. Early treatments from the 60s and 70s saw patients given nausea-inducing drugs while watching same-sex pornography (also known as aversion therapy), oestrogen treatments to reduce a man’s libido and even electroconvulsive therapy, in which an electric current is sent through the brain, inducing a seizure.
More recently, psychoanalysis seems to be the method of choice for many ‘therapists’, in which they produce pseudoscientific theories as a way to hypothesise why a child might be gay. Writer Gabriel Arana described his experience in conversion therapy, in which the therapist blamed his parents for his homosexuality and urged Arana to distance himself from his female friends. Activist Chaim Levin revealed he quit therapy after his therapist told him to strip down and touch himself in order to “reconnect with his masculinity”.
Is It Banned?
In the UK, all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies have condemned the practice by signing a Memorandum of Understanding. Yet, conversion therapy itself is not illegal and is practiced in the UK, mostly by religious sects. In February 2018, British Christian organisation Core Issues Trust tried to book out a London cinema to screen a film that advocated conversion therapy. Voices of the Silenced promoted the idea that people could be ‘rescued’ from homosexual impulses and was supported by representatives from Christian Concern.
In August 2017, the Pentecostal church Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry, based in Liverpool, claimed to cure homosexuality by starvation for three days. Undercover Liverpool Echo reporter, Josh Parry, was told in a meeting with the church's assistant pastor that in order to cure himself of his impulses, he must not eat or drink anything for 72 hours, and was encouraged not to leave the HQ during this time. The head of the church, Dr Desmond Dele Sanusi – a brain surgeon working for the NHS – denied that they offer such a practice.
As a result of this exposé, a petition was created and a response was later issued from the government – but it was disappointing at best. “The Government totally condemns any attempt to treat being gay, lesbian or bisexual as an illness,” the reply read. “However, the Government does not believe creating a criminal offence is the right way forward.”
So while the government has denounced the practice, they wouldn’t go the extra step to ban it completely. In America, things are much the same – the process is condemned by most but is only currently banned in nine states. California is tipped to be the first state to completely ban conversion therapy – in April 2018 the State Assembly passed AB-2943, a bill that would make it illegal to ban the practice being performed on both children and adults. Any professional or business practicing it would be charged as fraudulent, as would be exposing LGBTQ people to damaging psychological abuse. But there are still 40 states that currently have no explicit laws surrounding conversion therapy, meaning it can currently be practised without consequence.
But while it has often been the practice of certain religious groups, authorities from all different faiths have started to speak out against conversion therapy. In July last year the Church of England condemned the therapy and called on the government to ban it, branding it unethical and harmful, and stating that it had “no place in the modern world”.
Proposing the motion, LGBT campaigner and Evangelical Christian Jayne Ozanne – who underwent conversion therapy that resulted in two breakdowns and two spells in hospital – said: “Exclusion, stigma and prejudice may precipitate mental health issues for any person subjected to these abuses.” She also read aloud stats from an online survey conducted with 553 members of the LGBT community, in which just under 40% had said they had undergone conversion therapy – with more than two-thirds saying it was due to their sexual orientation being ‘sinful’. Just under three-quarters were under the age of 20 when they began the therapy.
The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, reiterated Ozanne’s sentiment, adding conversion therapy was “theologically unsound, so the sooner the practice of [it] is banned, I can sleep at night”.
So what is being done?
Well, it seems the public are doing their part, but that momentum stops when it comes to the people in power. In March 2017, Theresa May dismissed a petition (separate to the one created by Echo reporter Josh Parry) that would have made conversion therapy illegal in the UK. Despite receiving over 35,000 signatures, it was denied a debate in parliament because it did not exceed 100,000 names.
In a response posted on the petition site, officials wrote: “The Government fully recognise the importance of this issue and the adverse impact this treatment could have on lesbian, gay and bisexual people. There is no evidence that this sort of treatment is beneficial, and indeed it may well cause significant harm to some patients.
“This Government is committed to tackling discrimination towards LGB people. That is why we have already worked with the main registration and accreditation bodies for psychotherapy and counselling practitioners, including the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), to develop first a consensus statement and then a Memorandum of Understanding committing signatory organisations to a range of activities including training and awareness raising amongst their members in relation to this issue.”
However, in March 2018, Pink News reported that the UK government could finally ready to ban the practice. “This Government is absolutely clear that being LGBT is not an illness to be cured, and the practice of conversion therapy is wrong,” a government spokesperson told the publication. “In 2017, we conducted a national survey of LGBT people in the UK, which included questions about whether respondents have been offered or undertaken conversion therapy. This will help us investigate what additional steps we could take to end this practice.
“We are currently analysing the responses to the survey and will be publishing a response later this year.”
The results of the government survey are no doubt eagerly awaited by most. While having all major health organisations condemn the practice is helpful, it is simply not enough. Making conversion therapy illegal everywhere would save countless lives; people who have gone through conversion therapy face 8.9 times the rates of suicide and suffer depression at 5.9 times the rate of their peers. They are also more likely to use illegal drugs and are at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Because it is naïve to think that conversion therapy stops someone being gay or trans – it just further cements that noxious feeling that it’s wrong to be who they are.
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