Conversion therapy, a nonscientific treatment used to "change" people’s sexual orientation, has been denounced by medical and mental health organizations because it causes harm to people who undergo it, perpetuates negative stereotypes about being LGBTQ, and, of course, isn't effective. Conversion therapy operates under the incorrect assumption that being LGBTQ is something that needs to be "changed" or "cured," and puts LGBTQ folks in danger. But despite being banned in nine states and Washington, D.C., a new report found that almost 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) spoke out against conversion therapy, aka “reparative therapy” and “ex-gay therapy,” in 2015. “So-called reparative therapies are aimed at ‘fixing’ something that is not a mental illness and therefore does not require therapy. There is insufficient scientific evidence that they work, and they have the potential to harm the client,” APA 2015 President Barry S. Anton, PhD, said in a press release. “APA has and will continue to call on mental health professionals to work to reduce misunderstanding about and prejudice toward gay and transgender people.”
The report, which was published by the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, estimated that 698,000 LGBTQ adults in the United States have received conversion therapy from a licensed professional or a religious advisor (or both) at some point in their lives. Of those, about 350,000 received the treatment during adolescence. The Williams Institute predicted that 20,000 LGBTQ children between ages 13 and 17 will undergo conversion therapy before they turn 18 from a licensed healthcare professional in the 41 states where it is not banned. Additionally, it’s estimated that around 57,000 youths will receive conversion therapy from a religious or spiritual advisor.
Conversion therapy uses nonscientific and often harmful tactics to achieve the goal of changing someone’s sexual orientation. According the Williams Institute’s report, although talk therapy is the most common technique, some practitioners have used “aversion treatments, such as inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis; providing shocks; or having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when the individual becomes aroused to same-sex erotic images or thoughts.”
A very small minority of the population actually believes that conversion therapy works. In the last five years, several public opinion polls have been conducted to determine what people think of conversion therapy, and according to one, only 8 percent of people believe gay conversion therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. In 2015, President Obama called for an end to the practice, a stance the American Psychiatric Association applauded.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely to experience a mental health condition, such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder, than heterosexual people. Going through conversion therapy has the potential to exacerbate existing mental health issues or create new ones, according to the report.
Despite the known negative consequences of conversion therapy, conservative Christian groups like the American Family Association (AFA) and the Family Research Council (FRC) support the practice. The AFA, which proclaims “a culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our nation and our families,” encouraged New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez to veto a bill that banned conversion therapy. Martinez signed the measure into law last April. And the FRC inaccurately asserts that homosexuality is a choice and not a characteristic people are born with.
The Williams Institute encourages parents and guardians to “avoid sexual orientation change efforts that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder.” You can combat conversion therapy by encouraging your representatives to sponsor legislation that bans it in your state.