Conversion Therapy And The Problem With Banning It

Originally published on Medium


For the past two weeks, I have been elbow deep conversion therapy research, specifically legislation banning it around the world, and the opposition to such bans as part of my role in OutRight Action International. I will not rehash the many studies that show that conversion therapy (CT) is profounding detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. It is very clear that there is no scientific basis for CT, and it has been rejected by every major psychologist organisation worldwide. Nevertheless, it is banned in only very few places (and a CT ban doesn’t a queer-friendly nation make, in many countries with a ban it was because the CT there was the most violent and reprehensible); Malta, Ecuador, Brazil, parts of Spain, a few others but also in all these places CT still occurs.

This is partly because of the ever-evolving dynamics of what is thought of as CT, and how those who provide CT remarket and rebrand it, making it a constant moving target. There are several different types of CT, which provide a “service” to a different target market. There is your straight up being gay is terrible and you should and can change that. The market for this product is small but loyal, and shrinking very slowly.

But then there is the much more elusive, and insidious type which I’ll dub CT lite. There is much to say about the type of CT that young people are dragged to against their will, and this is ongoing. The camps were young lesbian and bi women are “correctively raped”, the electroshock, and the torture — this is condemned by the vast majority of people. But what about this CT lite, and it’s gentle approach to the eradication of queer people?

The rebranding of conversion therapy

CT lite is like smoke, changing, moving, adapting and near impossible to pin down, and it has a much wider potential audience. The tactics of CT lite providers is extremely clever and highlights many ingenious moves by anti-LGBT groups and far-right organisations. The first step is, of course, to rid yourself of the bad publicity, it’s no longer conversion therapy — no no no, of course, conversion therapy is a term made by the liberal left to vilify these well-meaning people. We’re not anti-choice, we’re pro-life, we’re not anti-LGBT we’re pro-family, etc.

To quote from Christian Concern “The term ‘conversion therapy’ was invented by gay activists in order to disparage all types of therapy whose outcome involved a diminution of same-sex attraction and behaviour.”

CT has undergone many rebrandings. It’s now Reintegrative Therapy, Reparative Therapy, or efforts to change SSA (same-sex attraction, always used in the context of “unwanted” same-sex attraction). There’s even jazzy acronyms, Paths (Positive Approaches To Health Sexuality) and ones invoking genuine mental health strategies like SAFE-T (Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy). Many survivors call it SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts). They all mean the same thing –stop being queer. They have organisations with official-sounding names such as the International Federation for therapeutic and counselling choice (the IFTC). They do the work to distance themselves from the term CT, knowing that many people will be soured on this term. They even have graphics to explain the difference to us:

People who seek to be changed

It is easy to dislike those who have undergone CT and are now “ex-gay” especially as they promote the methods. But let’s exercise some empathy. Who are these people? Why did they go, often uncoerced, into such a programme? First of all many of them are conservative and religious and of course, have been, or fear being, rejected by their families. They are isolated and alone.

It’s easy to think that these people never found their queer community. This, however, is not true, many of them did, and had sex and went to parties and they still needed to be changed. The scene may not be palatable for a conservative person, where is the teetotal, chaste gay community? Does that exist? The issue seems to be the inability these men have to unlink gayness with everything they stand against; promiscuity, alcohol, drugs, atheism. Yes, they are gay men’s church choirs, but maybe not in this guy’s town.

The ideal is obviously that they would address their internalised homophobia in legitimate therapy. Easier said than done. Legitimate therapy costs money, many CT programmes are free as they are funded by churches and/or deep conservative pockets. Proper, affordable mental health care is lacking almost everywhere and this allows these highly professional-appearing CT programmes to seem viable for these vulnerable people. Many of them say without the CT and their new straight lives they would be dead at their own hand. And I believe them.

The language of the left

One of the smartest tactics of the right is to use the language of the left in its arguments. I’ve learned much about this tactic from ED of OutRight, Jessica Stern. In this instance, they are using the concept that sexuality is fluid, and therefore can be changed. One provider says he assisted hundreds of clients with their goal to reduce their same-sex attractions and explore their heterosexual potential. So when we say sexuality is fluid, they say yes it is, so be straight!

They may be happy to embrace the idea of sexual fluidity but only when the stream is flowing in one direction.

I doubt they would be so accepting of this idea when a woman wants to start dating women. A movie “documentary” promoting CT is even called Free to Love, echoing the slogans for marriage equality.

Screenshot from FreeTo Love Movie website where you can watch the documentary

They also use the term self-determination a lot. Knowing that LGBT activists speak about self-determination, autonomy, self-declaration, they then use this language too. As a bisexual person, I live by the golden rule of never questioning someone’s identity. If a man is married to a woman and identifies as bisexual, that’s fine, I do not pry into his past relationships, I merely take him at his word. The same must apply here for the ex-gay (mainly) men who now proclaim they are straight. I believe them. I wish they have had had different options, but ridiculing them, as opposed to the people behind the practice, is a misguided endeavour. I have seen queer publications report that these ex-gay men still have feelings for men, in a sneering way, and it’s not OK.

Personal Choice & Freedom

The biggest and most successful argument these groups use to shut down CT bans is around personal choice and freedom. Irish Senator Ronan Mullen made such a statement just last week. “We think people should have the freedom to pursue their own goals in therapy, and therapists should be free to assist them,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council — seems reasonable,until you read the Family Research Council website which says “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large…Sympathy must be extended to those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions, and every effort should be made to assist such persons to overcome those attractions, as many already have.”

While most people will agree that extreme cases of CT with physical torture are abhorrent, what happens within reintegration therapy, or reparative therapy that we can point to and say that specifically should be banned. They are making it gentler on purpose, so they can preserve their practice.

Many CT providers claim that converting them to heterosexuality is not the ultimate goal. A complete lie of course. How can we protect vulnerable people from being targeted by these groups? I don’t know if we can ever fully stop, ban or outlaw such efforts, especially given the protection most religious organisations have to promote whatever viewpoint they want. Nonetheless, comprehensive bans are needed to stop blatantly dangerous CT practices. And while I may hold an opinion that all CT practices are dangerous, I can’t stop someone talking about fluid sexuality and apparent (uncorroborated) joys of heterosexual life.

What constitutes CT is so rapidly evolving and I can’t imagine how legislation could keep up with the many faces of this insidious practice. So what can we do? We can make sure support groups for people coming out are open and accessible to people from fundamental religious backgrounds. That we provide alcohol-free spaces for LGBT socialising. Most importantly, and I am biased I suppose, we can make sure schools are accepting of their LGBT staff and students, and do what we can to reduce bullying and isolation. Then slowly we can change the internal dialogue a young LGBT person has about themselves, and hopefully, erode the customer base for CT going forward.

Let’s recognize CT for what it is, not therapy at all, but heteronormative indoctrination. The entire concept hinges on the idea of heterosexuality as the default and the norm. If we change that concept, then we take away any demand for CT.