Why Does The GOP Still Support Dangerous Gay ‘Conversion Therapy’?

It should come as no surprise that Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence does not support LGBTQ rights. Pence identifies as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” In 2003, he co-sponsored a Constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. In 2007, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2015, he signed a “religious freedom” act into law that allowed for discrimination against LGBTQ people in Indiana on religious grounds. And before all that, as Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski noted earlier this month, Pence expressed his support for a highly controversial and harmful practice: gay “conversion therapy.”

“Conversion therapy,” sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay therapy,” seeks to “convert” people from homosexual to heterosexual. Historically, it has included practices ranging from shock therapy to talking with a counselor, and has been widely discredited by the medical community. On Pence’s 2000 campaign website, he argued that money marked for a program to assist those with HIV/AIDS should be given to “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Fast-forward to last month, when tacit support for conversion therapy found a home in the GOP’s platform. The platform now includes support for “the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children.” TIME reported that Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins “originally drafted a more explicit embrace of [conversion therapy], but amended the text after consultations with top RNC officials.” Though Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has claimed that conversion therapy is not part of the official party platform, the platform’s current language can be read as supportive of a parent’s right to subject their child to it.

Conversion therapy has appeared in a number of forms over the years. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, conversion therapy can include such acts as “violent role play, reenactment of past abuses, and exercises involving nudity and intimate touching.” Dr. Doug Haldeman, a professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University, has witnessed some changes in these practices over the years. In the early ’80s, he says, he saw people “who had been electric shocked, or given nausea-inducing drugs, while they were viewing homoerotic material that they found arousing . . . after the shock was over, or after they had finished vomiting, they would be shown a picture of a naked woman to try to replace their homoerotic interests with heterosexual orientation.”

Now, according to Dr. Haldeman, it’s more common for conversion therapy to include talk therapy or religious intervention and prayer. This might include one-on-one or group sessions during which people are required to talk in detail about their same-sex attractions and how to “overcome” them. It can also include meetings with religious leaders or prayer groups, where participants are often told that homosexuality is incompatible with their faith. Dr. Haldeman says these therapies often do real damage: “I saw many people who had become very depressed — suicidal even — and feeling not only shameful about being gay, but doubly shameful about not being able to change it.”

Other medical professors and scholars who have studied conversion therapy agree that it’s not only ineffective, but actively harmful. As the Human Rights Campaign points out, nearly all the major psychological, psychiatric, medical (including pediatric), social work, and counseling (including family and marriage therapy) associations in the United States have released statements discrediting conversion therapy and those who practice it. The American Psychiatric Association stated in 2000 that “‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure” and that the Association “recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

“We found no evidence that these treatments work,” says Dr. Judith Glassgold, a clinical psychologist and visiting research scholar the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Dr. Glassgold served on two different task forces that surveyed research of conversion therapy: one task force with the American Psychological Association, and one collaborative task force with the APA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These projects examined over 50 years of research on sexual orientation change efforts and found no evidence that counseling can change a person’s sexual orientation (or, in the case of the SAMHSA study, a person’s gender identity). Instead, Dr. Glassgold says, conversion therapy can lead to “worsening of mental health, increased risk of suicide, a risk of depression and anxiety, a risk of worse family relationships . . . an increase in the potential for substance abuse or alcoholism, [and] the potential for negative health behaviors, like risky sexual behaviors.”

According to Dr. Haldeman, many of the people who seek out these treatments do so on religious grounds. “Conversion therapy has always been an industry that’s been driven by a certain religious conservatism,” he says. Dr. Glassgold agrees: “They hear from their faith that this is incompatible, or they’ll be damned, or that God can’t love a gay child.”

Dr. Haldeman practices in California — the first state to ban conversion therapy. He thinks such bans represent an important step. These laws are “not just for protecting people,” he says, “but also for informing them that this is not considered to be legitimate or have any basis in science.” He hopes the ban will help parents understand how risky and ineffective conversion therapy is.

Currently, only five states — California, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois and Vermont — ban conversion therapy for minors. Cities such as Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Seattle have similar bans. In February, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced measures prohibiting healthcare insurers from covering the practice and mental health facilities from performing it on minors. In other states — including Hawaii, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Iowa, and more — similar bills have been introduced, only to languish. According to the Movement Advancement Project, this means about 76% of the country’s LGBTQ population currently lives in a state with no protections against conversion therapy for minors.

However, Dr. Glassgold says, even if these bans were more common, it might not be enough. Statewide bans are often directed at licensed mental health providers, she says, who are a “tiny subset of the people who provide conversion therapy.” In fact, it’s mostly religiously affiliated service providers that offer conversion therapy, and they are often exempt from these bans at the state level.

What may be more effective, according to Dr. Glassgold, is classifying conversion therapy as fraudulent under consumer protection laws — as happened with a gay conversion program in New Jersey. Members of Congress have recently introduced bills in the House and Senate to classify conversion therapy as fraud, which could address a wider range of providers.

This means the next American president might end up deciding whether to sign federal conversion therapy legislation that could affect LGBTQ youth across the country. While Mike Pence has expressed support for conversion therapy, Donald Trump has mostly stayed out of the conversation. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, tweeted in 2015 that she does not support conversion therapy, and her daughter Chelsea referred to it as “child abuse.”

While the language both on Pence’s 2000 campaign website and in the current GOP platform is somewhat coded, the words of those who have experienced the effects of conversion therapy firsthand rarely are. Some describe feeling isolated and depressed, being told they “chose hell,” and having their close-knit homes torn apart. Ryan Kendall, a contributor at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, describes his experience with conversion therapy this way: “[M]y weekly sessions … set me on a devastating, decade-long course of self-destruction, as each session made me sink deeper into depression and drove me to the brink of suicide.”

As Dr. Haldeman notes, despite recent gains — including marriage equality and a more widespread cultural acceptance of LGBTQ people — Dr. Haldeman notes “it still can be a rough world for kids to grow up gay. Forcing a kid into conversion therapy just makes it that much more difficult — and you could possibly be saddling your kid with a lifetime of psychological distress.”

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Lead image: flickr/Greg Skidmore