Recently, a book club that I belong to featured a book called the “Miseducation of Cameron Post” which is a story about a young woman who is sent to a religious school for “conversion therapy” in response to her homosexuality. Conversion therapy, (sometimes known as reparative therapy) is a range of discredited practices which falsely claim to be able to change a person’s gender identity, largely through prayer or other religious efforts.
Although the practice has been rejected as “pseudoscience” by mainstream medical and mental health organisations since the early 1990s, some practitioners continue to practice the technique. The highest-profile advocates of conversion therapy tend to be fundamentalist Christian groups who use religious justification for the therapy in partnership with such organisations as the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and People Can Change. These groups promote the concept that an individual can change their gender identity either through prayer, or through so-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy.
Minors are especially vulnerable, with conversion therapy often leading to depression, anxiety and in some instances, suicide, as in the case of Leelah Alcorn. Leelah’s untimely death in 2014 prompted President Obama to support calls for “Leelah’s law” which sought to ban conversion therapy across the USA. Since these calls, California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent licensed mental health providers from offering conversion therapy to minors, and more than 20 states have introduced similar legislation. Oklahoma however, has introduced legislation which would specifically legitimize conversion therapy and immunize it from state oversight.
Since the introduction of legislation, there have been a number of challenges from supporters of each side of the argument. Those campaigning against the law tend to focus their efforts on challenging the law directly, such as in the instances in California in 2013 and in New Jersey in 2015 and 2016. Those campaigning for the law have based their efforts on enforcing consumer protection law, by alleging advertisements and business practices which claim they can change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity constitute deceptive, false, and misleading practices which can cause serious harm to consumers.
There is significant anecdotal evidence of harm to LGBT people resulting from attempts to change their sexual orientation and gender identity. Based on this body of evidence, every major medical and mental health organization in the United States as well as the NHS here in the UK have issued statements condemning the use of conversion therapy. Even Psychiatrist Dr. L. Spitzer, who once offered a study on reparative therapy, has since denounced the practice and has apologized for endorsing the practice.
Consider these statistics, that Trans people (and other LGB classes) who are subjected to “conversion therapy ” 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.
- More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs.
Opponents of a ban (hard to believe they STILL exist isn’t it ?!?!) on the practice believe gender identity in gender-nonconforming children is as-yet unformed. They point out that some grow up to be gay or lesbian, rather than transgender, so therefore efforts to change their gender nonconformity may result in happy gay and lesbian adults, rather than transgender adults “doomed” to what they believe is a a sad life of hormone treatments and surgeries. For these critics, conversion therapy in pre-pubertal children focuses on changing gender-nonconforming behaviour, asserting that pre-homosexual and pre-transgender children can’t be distinguished before puberty.
The reality is though that conversion therapy has been shown to be extremely dangerous and, in some cases, fatal. In 2009, the APA issued a report concluding “the reported risks of the practices include: depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, suicidality, substance abuse, stress, disappointment, self-blame, decreased self-esteem and authenticity to others, increased self-hatred, hostility and blame toward parents, feelings of anger and betrayal, loss of friends and potential romantic partners, problems in sexual and emotional intimacy, sexual dysfunction, high-risk sexual behaviors, a feeling of being dehumanized and untrue to self, a loss of faith, and a sense of having wasted time and resources.”