Content warning: This article discusses conversion therapy in detail, including inhumane treatment, and discussion of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
What is Conversion therapy?
‘Conversion therapy’ is an umbrella term that’s used to describe processes designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. You might have seen it called ‘reparative therapy’, ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘Sexual Orientation Change Efforts’.
It’s important to understand that while the word “therapy” is used in this article, it’s a very misleading word for an incredibly cruel practice.
Being gender diverse or attracted to people of the same gender has often been pathologised, that is, labelled as a medical condition or mental illness. While the practice was more mainstream in the past, conversion therapy is currently only carried out by fringe medical or religious groups. Thankfully the practice has become increasing rare, but it does still happen today, particularly in areas less accepting or understanding of LGBT+ identities.
Conversion therapy includes a number of inhumane treatments that have been widely condemned by major health bodies. Many types of conversion therapy involve being confined to a mental health facility or asylum, most often against the will of the person being “treated”.
Other methods more rooted in religious practice can involve ‘praying the gay away’. This might sound pretty silly or lighthearted, but it actually involves shame, social pressure, and prayer being used by religious leaders and their communities to try to force people to “change” their sexuality or gender identity. Some parents send their children on ‘camps’ where the whole purpose is to force their children to “become straight”.
Why would people want to do this?
Why people pursue conversion therapy for themselves or those around them is a complex question.
Some people seek out conversion therapy for their family or friends due to fear, prejudice, or a lack of understanding. Some people misunderstand coming out as LGBT+ as ‘seeking attention’ or ‘being rebellious’.
When people seek out conversion therapy for themselves, internalised homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia also can play a role. The idea of “wanting to be normal” or “not wanting to be queer” stem from being raised in a society that still all too often treats LGBT+ identities as alien or bad.
Some attempt to convert others for religious reasons, as some faiths still deem being transgender or attracted to the same gender to be sinful.
This unfortunately can often become a means of justification to try to change the identity of LGBT+ people to “save them”, but this has been widely demonstrated to do more damage than good, and the people in question usually don’t want to be “saved”!
One other unfortunate motivator can be a fear of receiving homophobia and transphobia themselves. For parents or guardians, the prospect of the children they love, raise, and protect, being subjected to bigotry, discrimination, and inequality can be frightening, and sometimes even though the intent is to protect, fear can drive guardians to seek conversion therapy for misguided reasons.
Regardless of what motivates someone to seek it out however, conversion therapy has been extensively shown to be ineffective and unethical.
What experts have to say
It’s pretty clear that this is ridiculous, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being same-gender attracted or gender diverse in the first place!
The American Psychological Association realised this in 1973 and removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), widely considered the world standard in mental health, meaning it was no longer considered a mental health disorder, and didn’t need treatment.
Leading mental health organisations have unanimously spoken out against conversion therapy (3, 4, 5, 6, 7), and an almost every modern study done on this topic has shown that sexuality and gender identity cannot be forcibly changed (1, 2). Some people’s attraction or personal identity may change naturally over time, but this is vastly different from trying to force someone to change through treatments.
Who’s responsible for this?
Thankfully, in recent years mental health bodies and LGBT+ advocates have raised awareness about the issues with conversion therapy, and helped get many conversion therapy organisations shut down. In the US, Exodus International (one of the largest ex-gay groups in the world) shut down in June 2012, with their president Alan Chambers apologising for the work his organisation did, and saying that he no longer believes conversion therapy works (8, 9). In Australia, the conversion therapy organisation ‘Living Waters’ also closed its doors after decades of offering the practice.
Unfortunately, there are still some conversion therapy organisations around today. In the US the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (previously NARTH) offers conversion therapy.
In Australia, there isn’t a unified body like ATCSI, but this means anti-queer counsellors still operate on their own..
Very little has actually been done by governments to stop the practice of conversion therapy, even with pressure coming from medical professionals and queer advocates. Victoria is the only state to have made conversion therapy illegal in Australia, where any mental health practitioner caught offering the practice will face serious consequences under the law, but similar laws have yet to be adopted in other areas.
Despite the progress that has been made, there’s still much to be done to ensure that no one falls victim to conversion therapy.
But what if, hypothetically, they did work?
Even if radical practices like this did work, conversion therapy is based on the idea that gender diversity or being attracted to the same gender are objectively bad.
While the evidence does overwhelmingly demonstrate these practices are ineffective at best, and often damaging, we need to move beyond just “well that’s just the way they are” or “born this way” when thinking about gender and sexuality.
It’s important not just to accept or tolerate diversity, but celebrate and welcome it. Even if you could stop someone from being gender diverse or attracted to the same gender, why on earth would you?
The only objectively negative thing about being LGBT+, is the stigma and mistreatment that comes from those that don’t understand, or don’t want to coexist. Being LGBT+ in and of itself is a wonderful thing that queer youth deserve to be proud of, just as much as any other part of who they are!