Conversion therapy and the LGBT community

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Vice President Elect Mike Pence has come under fire for his support of conversion therapy programs

Millions around the United States are vehemently opposed to conversion therapy, so why is a major political party advocating for it?

In January of 2015, transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn committed suicide after telling her mother that she identified as a girl. Her mother told her that it was a phase, that she would never be a girl and that God doesn’t make mistakes. After subsequently being sent to conversion therapy camps, she committed suicide at the age of 15.

Conversion therapy, the practice of using pseudo-psychological techniques to attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or identity, has been around for decades, propagated by the religious right, evangelical Christians and intellectual homophobes.

Professional Opinions

According to a 2009 report from the American Psychological Association, the techniques therapists have used to try to change sexual orientation and gender identity include inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images, providing electric shocks, using shame to create aversion to same-sex attractions, and orgasmic reconditioning, where a patient stimulates themselves to orgasm while recounting a fantasy out loud, switching between homosexual and heterosexual fantasies weekly until the patient shows an increased arousal from heterosexual stimuli.

Most of these techniques have been in place since the 1950’s with little or no change to their procedures.

Other techniques include trying to make patients’ behavior more stereotypically feminine or masculine, teaching heterosexual dating skills, or using hypnosis to try to redirect desires and arousal.

Because of the outdated science and unethical methods used in conversion therapy, most professional organizations condemn the practice. The American Psychiatric Association “opposes any psychiatric treatment such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a prior assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that  “Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”

The Pan American Health Organization, an office of the World Health Organization, has stated that these practices “lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” The APA found in 2009 that “The results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase other-sex attractions through therapy.”

Transgender Owosso Resident Kalib Watson

Photo by Liam Tiernan

Transgender Owosso Resident Kalib Watson

“Knowing the effects of conversion therapy on the individuals that participate, I think it should be outlawed,” said Kalib Watson, a transgender Owosso, Mich. resident. “When trans people are trying to transition its because they’re experiencing gender dysphoria (The feeling of belonging to a gender that biologically you don’t belong to). Psychological professionals have found that when you’re not able to conform to your gender identity, it does damage because you’re not treated as the person you are in your mind.”


Protection may be a distant future

Despite the warnings of the professional psychiatric community, actual protection for LGBT people against conversion therapy is dismal. Five states in the U.S. have banned the practice, but 76 percent of LGBT Americans are still at risk of being affected by conversion therapy. It’s a risk that’s too real for too many.

Five states and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy for minors

Graphic by Liam Tiernan

Five states and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy for minors

“I know a lot of teens and young adults get thrown into some kind of therapy at home because their parents aren’t comfortable with them,” said Watson. “All it is is making a quick buck off of someone’s discomfort.”

According to Fallon Fox, transgender athlete and LGBT activist, even hearing that the feelings of wanting to be another gender are wrong can cause deep depression, fear of rejection and suicidal thoughts. According to the Human Rights Campaign, highly rejected LGBT young people were more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide and six times as likely to report high levels of depression than LGBT teens who were not rejected by their parents or caregivers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Information from the Human Rights Campaign

Graphic by Liam Tiernan

Information from the Human Rights Campaign


The other side

Not all official opinions on conversion therapy are negative. Dr. Paul McHugh, former Chairperson of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, once wrote that, “The idea that one’s sex is fluid and a matter open to choice runs unquestioned through our culture and is reflected everywhere in the media, the theater, the classroom, and in many medical clinics. It has taken on cult-like features: its own special lingo, internet chat rooms, providing slick answers to new recruits, and clubs for easy access to dresses and styles supporting the sex change. It is doing much damage to families, adolescents, and children and should be confronted as an opinion without biological foundation wherever it emerges.”

Twenty states have rejected conversion therapy restrictions, mostly urged by members of the Christian community. Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence has advocated for “institutions which provide support for those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” One bill on the GOP platform, The First Amendment Defense Act, would allow “healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and organizations to turn away customers based on the rights of [their] conscience.” The GOP has also condemned the Obama administration’s inclusion of transgender people in its interpretation of Title IX, saying that the current administration wishes to “undermine religion and drive it from the public square.” GOP delegates across the nation have also been making every effort to stem the rising tide of LGBT rights.

James Bopp, a GOP delegate from Indiana, said at the Republican National Convention that “Issues like privacy in the bathroom and attacks on conversion therapy are really kind of contemporary issues where we’re seeing the gay community being intolerant of people’s differing views.” According to the Washington Post, The draft platform included language alluding to conversion therapy, stating that parents have the right to make medical decisions for their minor children.

“The fact that there’s a major political party willing to stand behind it,” sighed Watson, “that process of psychological damage is horrifying.”

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