Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is conversion therapy?
Peter Gajdics: “Conversion therapy,” also known as “reparative therapy” or even “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), really took hold in direct response to the burgeoning gay rights movement of the early 1970’s, particularly after the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As gay liberation exploded over the next several years and gay people carved out their own place in history, taking great strides toward visibility and self-worth, in some cases legal vindication, the religious right advanced its own ideology of being “ex-gay” — that it was possible to sort of “pray away the gay.” Personally, I don’t really like this term, “pray away the gay,” since I think it reduces what is actually a traumatic experience to the sound of a joke, and the process of attempting to strip away a person’s core self and “convert” them into something that they’re not is anything but humorous: lives have been destroyed and even lost in the name of this kind of ignorance and outright hatred. Ultimately, there was nothing new to any of this; what we call “homosexuals” or even “gay” people today have been victims to all sorts of strange methods and ideologies to help “change” them, or at least to help conceal them, over the centuries. In the 20th century alone we’ve seen aversion therapy, castrations and lobotomies, inhumane use of psychotropics, and of course forced psychoanalysis as a common “cure.” At one time not that long ago it was believed that homosexuals were really just confused straight people who wished to incorporate the therapist’s penis orally in an effort to appropriate his omnipotence; or that homosexuality was caused by childhood prohibition against masturbation. Homosexuals were once considered predominantly anti-social, vindictive, and hateful of all people; homosexuals and “dwarfs” were seen to be comparable in that both had apparently been stunted in their growth; passive homosexuals threatened to lure straight men away from their opposite-sex spouses. Homosexuality, it was once believed, could be cured through 40 sessions of hypnosis; gay men and women could be “made straight” by watching childbirth in hospitals; circumcision could lead to “less homosexuality in Jews.” It’s unbelievable when we think about it today, but these “beliefs” were all once accepted as fact.
Today, the most common form of conversion therapy is perhaps still the religious ideology that seems to target those who’ve been raised with the belief that homosexuality is a sin and can therefore be healed through divine intervention. This is a lie, of course, no different than saying a heterosexual person could become homosexual if only they got down on their knees and prayed. It’s absurd, and yet the “gay to straight” ideology is still believed by millions of people worldwide because of the cult and power of religious dogmatism. Sometimes, abandoning these false beliefs means losing one’s faith in their religion, and that is often just intolerable to a lot of people Obviously, conversion therapy need not carry any overt religiosity, such as what happened to me with a psychiatrist.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was your own experience with it?
Peter Gajdics: In 1989, at the age of 24, I started therapy with a licensed psychiatrist shortly after coming out and being rejected by my family. Like many young gay people, I’d recently fled my hometown to “start over,” but quickly fell into a deep depression. I knew I needed to talk to someone, and so my family physician referred me to this psychiatrist. One of the reasons I needed counselling in the first place was that I’d never really dealt with a lot of issues related to being sexually abused as a child. Throughout my young adolescence in the 1970’s I’d learned from a number of sources that sexual abuse “made” a person homosexual. The fear that this was true for me — that the abuse had “caused” my own homosexuality — haunted me through most of my life up until the time I met this doctor. Unfortunately, not long after beginning therapy, the psychiatrist affirmed the belief that the abuse had, indeed, “caused” my homosexuality, and that the only way to heal from the trauma of the abuse would be to revert to my “innate heterosexuality” (his words). I believed him, to a large degree because this belief system “fit” the narrative of my upbringing. What followed was six years of what today we would call “conversion therapy” — though, surprisingly, that term, “conversion therapy,” was never once spoken. The doctor’s methods to try and “change” my sexuality included ongoing primal scream therapy, near fatal dosages of various concurrent psychiatric medications (psychotropics), including weekly injections of ketamine hydrochloride, and aversion therapy.
In the years since this therapy ended, I’ve learned that all conversion therapies begin with some version of the same lie that says being gay or homosexual is an illness or immoral, a deviation, and must therefore be cured or “healed.” My own “lie” was that the abuse had made me gay, and like any convincing lie, I believed it until I no longer believed it, and then everything fell apart. I left the therapy in 1995 with acute post trauma, and started my long journey toward healing.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What have been the justifications for its use in the past?
Peter Gajdics: I think that justifications for the use of these kinds of inhumane treatments of gay people can be largely attributed to the medicalization and moralization of homosexuality, which at one time or another has sadly even been supported and institutionalized by health organizations, governments and world leaders. Much of this barbarianism has been occurring for centuries, and stating it all quite simply like this does not detract from how, for instance, psychiatry’s or certain religions’ treatment and views around homosexuality in the 20th century alone have caused enormous harm toward generations of LGBT people. Hate crimes, murders and suicides, the psychological or physical torture of “conversion therapy,” all are caused by false beliefs, promulgated by authority figures. I often wish that we would all just collectively stop referring to these treatments to “change” sexuality as “conversion therapy.” Nothing is ever “repaired” or “converted” in them, and their methods are anything but “therapeutic.” These are acts of sexuality abuse; they are acts of torture.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Have these justifications changed over time into the present, or not? How?
Peter Gajdics: I’m not so sure the justifications have changed but there’s definitely been a shift in the way the religious organizations have enforced these “conversion” practices, particularly following the demise of Exodus International, the world’s largest “ex-gay” ministry. Today, instead of stating that they can “change” a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual (although in some cases they do continue to say this), now they often use much more subversive language such as how they want to “help” the homosexual live a life of abstinence. In other words — they just want us all to stop having sex because to “act” on one’s homosexuality is the real sin. “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” as the saying goes. There is nothing new to any of this — I grew up hearing all of this in the 1970’s. The religious ideology of conversion therapy forces gay people back into a state of shame-based compartmentalization. We’re supposed to love ourselves as people, because we’re all made in God’s image — but hate what we feel and how we express ourselves intimately. That doesn’t make any sense, and continues with the shame game.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How can young homosexuals work to better manage their feelings and identity in a positive way instead of with guilt and shame?
Peter Gajdics: Shame and guilt, all of those kinds of negative emotions, are learned behaviours; we do not start out feeling shame, but learn it over time from others — family, religion, the media, the culture around us, even from the people we call our friends. The problem is we forget that these are things we’ve learned, and come to believe that they are essential to who and what we are, that they’re part of “us,” like our internal organs. We stop seeing the forest from the trees, and start acting out of these counterproductive emotions and behaviours — belief systems that are not “us,” but thoughts we’ve internalized. Anything that is learned can be unlearned, though with great difficulty. Oddly enough, these are the exact same words my psychiatrist said to me early on with respect to my homosexuality: “Your homosexuality is learned behaviour, and so therefore it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” Of course, he was wrong, because homosexuality is not a belief system; it is not something we “learn” but rather it’s a part of who a person is.
The problem in trying to unlearn what we’ve learned as children is that we have to first “see” these behaviours as separate from who we are as adults; we need to create distance from them in our minds. Unfortunately, in today’s madcap culture, driven largely by social media where everyone is always two steps behind the last guy, there is little space for distance. Still, distance must be created, if we are ever to find peace. There are great advantages in learning to recognize these negative emotions as separate from ourselves, since the loss of every part of us that is not who we are helps take us closer to who we were born to be.