As the 2020s get under way, the notion that some groups still try to ‘convert’ gay people into straight people feels like a zombified relic of the 1950s. With same-sex marriage on the statute books in many Western countries, and with ever-expanding representation of gay people in media, politics and sport, the ‘ex-gay’ movement has an other-worldly aura to it. Some of the more extreme methods involved in these treatments, such as electric shocks, heated needles under the fingernails, chemical castration, exorcism, beating rituals and even ‘corrective rape,’ feel especially alien to modern Western conditions. Surely this is not still a genuine problem?
Many countries and US states have already banned the practice of conversion therapy on minors. Countless medical groups like the American Psychological Association and the British Medical Association have also condemned it as ineffective and harmful to the patient, and a 2002 study by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder found that 87% of former conversion therapy patients reported failure.
The last vestiges of scientific backing for ex-gay treatments have also evaporated. Until recently, supporters of conversion therapy pointed to a 2003 study by Robert Spitzer, which argued that some people can indeed change sexuality. The American Psychiatric Association disowned the flawed research and Spitzer himself retracted his claims in 2012, stating: ‘The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change … If somebody is troubled that they are homosexual, what they ought to do is face up to that and do something so they are more comfortable living with the way they are, because any attempt to change is really misguided.’
This would seem to be ‘case closed,’ but in reality conversion therapy remains a very real problem across the globe. In the US, a 2018 report by the Williams Institute estimated that 698,000 LGBT+ Americans have experienced conversion therapy at some point in their lives, and in Germany the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute estimates that around 1,000 people receive this treatment every year. In a survey conducted by OutRight in 2019, 33% of African respondents reported conversion therapy to be ‘very common’ on that continent. Chinese advocacy groups, meanwhile, found at least 96 facilities and hospitals where one can receive it.
This poses a continued threat to the well-being of vulnerable LGBT+ people, as recipients of conversion therapy often report lasting psychological damage. One British man who paid for private psychoanalysis sessions in the 1970s told the researcher Michael King that the service made him feel ‘ontologically no good’. An American patient interviewed by Shidlo and Schroeder, meanwhile, stated he ‘felt like a cancer with a boil that someone is trying to lance out. I felt and still feel like a failure.’ Those who undergo beatings, electric shocks, or chemical interference as part of the conversion process are often left with physical as well as mental scars.
Many people have taken their own lives as a result of these bogus treatments — including Alan Turing, the mathematician who led the effort to break the Nazi enigma codes during World War II and is hailed as the ‘father of modern computing’. After two years of hormonal castration, he bit an apple dipped in cyanide and passed away in 1954.
The continued prevalence of harmful ‘gay cures’ demonstrates the inadequacy of previous efforts to eradicate it. While lawmakers usually opt for a formula which bans the practice of conversion therapy on children, this leaves a large pool of vulnerable adults as potential victims, while also enabling the continued incubation and promotion of supposed conversion methods. Health authorities, such as the British National Health Service, have banned the practice within their own facilities, but they have limited influence over third-party and private practitioners.
There are still plenty of organizations like Exodus Global Alliance and the Core Issues Trust which promote an ‘ex-gay’ narrative in the media. Western evangelical groups like the US-based Global Teen Challenge also conduct missionary activities around the world to spread conversion practices. And while the general trend is towards banning conversion therapy, there are plenty of countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Russia and Iran where governments still tolerate or even promote such treatments. The Russian state of Chechnya began a renewed anti-gay purge in 2017 in which ‘corrective’ beatings have been common.
Bans in some countries have proved to be fragile. In Brazil, for instance, a 1999 ban was overturned in 2017, then reinstated in 2018, showing that progress is not always linear. The LGBT+ movement cannot afford to become complacent. We may feel, particularly in the West, that social and political acceptance has advanced far enough that ex-gay narratives no longer have any purchase, but we would be wrong. We have succeeded in pushing conversion therapy further to the margins, but there is a great deal of education and legislative action still to be done before we can truly regard the dragon as slain.
There are three major steps we need to take. First, sexual orientations and identities need to be integrated much more thoroughly into sex and health syllabuses in schools. Children need to be equipped with sufficient knowledge of how sexuality works in preparation for adulthood in a world filled with snake-oil salesmen and quack ‘medicine’.
Second, we have to treat this as a global problem by cracking down on Western missionary societies who export conversion doctrines to economically and socially deprived areas. We need to take moral (and practical) responsibility for the damage caused by these groups in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, where homophobia feeds on the input of centuries of Western missionary activity. We should also continue to use the UN and other international platforms like the European Union and the Commonwealth to condemn, discredit and stamp out conversion therapy.
Third, we need to ban the sale of conversion practices to any and all patients, not just children. We can never fully stop adults, in the throes of despair and desperation, attempting conversion through ‘self-help’ or non-commercial, non-public vectors, nor should they ever be punished for doing so. We can, however, prevent financially viable conversion centres from operating by pronouncing it universally illegal to sell this self-destructive pseudo-science, in any of its guises. As more countries move in this direction, the field of operation for conversion practitioners will get ever smaller.
One way or another, persistence is the key to victory.