Is it time to make gay conversion therapy illegal?

Miles Etherton

Should the freedom to love be a political choice?

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Is it time to make gay conversion therapy illegal?Yoav Hornung on Unsplash

Picture this.

You’re in a coffee shop, museum or sporting event — whatever pastime you enjoy, and then you encounter someone. The attraction to this person is immediate: the way they carry themselves, their smile, their looks, their intellect. Whatever the reason, the sparks are flying.

Remember this feeling for a moment.

Back in the coffee shop, you turn to the barista and ask for an Americano.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think you should try that. I’ll get you a cappuccino instead.”

Or in the museum.

“Two tickets for the Egyptian exhibition, please.”

The attendant looks you up and down and shakes their head.

“I’m afraid not. We’d like you to see the dinosaurs instead.”

At the stadium.

“Two tickets for behind the goal, please.”

The steward reaches for their walkie-talkie.

“We’ve got an away fan trying to get into the home end and causing trouble,” they say with a scowl.

You look bemused.

“You don’t understand, this is my team,” you protest as you’re marched away from the match.

You get the picture.

Now let’s return to that magical encounter and surge of attraction you were feeling for this new person you’ve just met. I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. They’re not the right gender for you, so you’d better move on and find someone else more socially acceptable.

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of someone telling me what football team I could support and watch would be enough to enrage me. I can’t imagine the anger, sadness, resentment or manner of other emotions I’d feel if I was told I couldn’t be with someone just because of my sexuality.

Welcome to the world and politics of Conversion Therapy.

What is Conversion Therapy?

Despite being aware of this practice, I was less familiar with the origins of conversion therapy. There are variations on the definition depending on your standpoint, but which include:

The pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological, physical, or spiritual interventions.

Others describe this practice as “gay conversion therapy”:

Conversion therapy — sometimes referred to as ‘gay cure’ therapy — can take many forms, though much of it is conducted in a religious setting, revolving around the ‘power of prayer’.

An attempt to change someone’s sexuality from something “abnormal” in the eyes of some — or in today’s terms those within the LGBTQIA+ community — to heterosexual, is nothing new.

From a scientific perspective, Sigmund Freud published a research paper in 1920 — “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” — and the discussion still rages.

Although not exhaustive, many “scientific” interventions found their way into practice to convert non-heterosexual people back to “normality”.

The list might shock you:

  • Behavioural modification — “aversive conditioning techniques, involving electric shock and nausea-inducing drugs during presentation of same-sex erotic images.”
  • Ex-gay ministries/organisations“transformational ministries…attempting to convert gay people to heterosexuality.”
  • Psychoanalysis — “long-term therapy aimed at resolving the unconscious childhood conflicts that they considered responsible for homosexuality.”
  • Reparative therapy — based on the view that “same-sex attraction is a person’s unconscious attempt to “self-repair” feelings of inferiority.”
  • Sex therapy — including therapists who “viewed homosexuality as the result of blocks that prevented the learning that facilitated heterosexual responsiveness.”
  • Lobotomy — ice-pick lobotomy as a treatment for homosexuality

There is no reliable research evidence for these “scientific” and “medical” procedures, as any reputable treatment should have. This doesn’t even consider the ethical questions “conversion” approaches raise or the mental health impact of such interventions. The basis is one important — but flawed belief — that by not being “straight” that you are “ill” or have a disorder.

Even in 1935, Sigmund Freud wrote to a mother, concerned about her son’s homosexuality, to say:

“It is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness.”

Reputable health organisations today still do not classify what Freud described as “a variation of sexual function”, as an “illness”.

The American Psychiatric Association issued a statement in 1998 on this point, which stated that it:

“Opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as “reparative” or conversion therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”

So why does conversion therapy still have traction today, within some political parties and religious groups?

Conversion therapy in the 21st century

In recent years, many national governments have been taking steps to ban conversion therapy and introduce laws to enforce this. Is your country amongst these?

A 2020 report by Open Democracy, campaigning for an end to this practice, looked at what some countries are considering.

  • USA — Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for under-18s, with a further five having partial bans. There is not a federal ban across the entire country.
  • Germany — the national legislature banned the practice and advertising of gay conversion therapy to people under 18.
  • Brazil, Ecuador, Malta and Taiwan — have also banned the practice for minors.
  • Canada — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in 2019 “that banning the controversial practice of attempting to forcibly change people’s gender or sexuality must be a “top priority”.
  • UK — in 2018, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, committed to end conversion therapy as part of the government’s LGBT Equality Plan.
  • Australia — the state of Queensland introduced a bill in 2019 that would “prohibit conversion therapy, with its top health official labelling the practice ‘highly destructive’.”
  • Spain — in 2019, the country’s health minister pushed for “so-called conversion therapy to be abolished after a report that a branch of the Catholic Church had offered to “cure” gay people.”

On the surface, you might think this looks quite positive — action to stop a “pseudo-scientific practice that has a destructive effect on people’s lives from a very early age” according to the international LGBTQ organisation, ILGA World, and discredited by the World Health Organisation amongst many others, is mobilising.

Maybe reconsider this for two reasons. First, as the ILGA report from early 2020 highlights, and more recent developments show, only four countries ban this “therapy”, and only in minors; four countries have regional bans, and five others have indirect bans. A grand total of 13 countries have any legal enforcement.

Put another way, there are 195 recognised countries in the world today — that’s 6.6% of states prohibiting this practice through law.

Second, why has it taken until almost a quarter of the way through this century before we see even the smallest movement to ban this practice?

The following sample of countries decriminalised homosexuality far earlier than this.

  • Italy — 1889
  • Switzerland — 1942
  • Greece — 1951
  • Hungary — 1961
  • UK — 1967
  • Austria — 1971
  • Spain — 1978
  • France — 1982

That said, in the world’s largest economy — the USA — the Supreme Court only made homosexuality legal in 2003.

Add into this, that another report from ILGA at the end of 2020 found that 69 UN member states still criminalise same-sex activity. This is a staggering third of the world’s countries.

With this figure in mind, and the small numbers of countries that have legal bans on conversion therapy, maybe it is no surprise that we’ve still not seen the back of what Amnesty International describes as a practice that “can constitute torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment”.

Despite some of the noisy political pledges, why are we not seeing faster action to outlaw this in countries where homosexuality is no longer illegal?

What’s the hold-up?

One potential obstacle to progress in banning conversion therapy is the argument religious groups should be exempt from prohibiting conversion therapy, e.g. via “pastoral support” and prayer.

In the US, the legal provisions state:

The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance, expressly protected by federal law.
Religious liberty is enshrined in the text of our Constitution and in numerous federal statutes. It encompasses the right of all Americans to exercise their religion freely, without being coerced to join an established church or to satisfy a religious test as a qualification for public office. It also encompasses the right of all Americans to express their religious beliefs, subject to the same narrow limits that apply to all forms of speech. In the United States, the free exercise of religion is not a mere policy preference to be traded against other policy preferences. It is a fundamental right.

In the UK, under the Equality Act 2010, religious views and beliefs are a “protected characteristic”, and inclusion within a conversion therapy ban may, in the eyes of the law, infringe their religious beliefs.

This is a legal dilemma faced by many other countries where different laws seem at odds with each other. This leaves the troubling ethical question of how to reconcile the mental, and sometimes physical harm of conversion therapy, with freedom of thought and belief — a cornerstone of civilised and democratic societies.

The agendas and policies of political parties also reflect those of their supporters. For the 2020 US Election, the Republican Party’s National Executive Committee continued its stance toward heterosexual norms and religious liberty, stating:

“We support the right of the people to conduct their businesses in accordance with their religious beliefs and condemn public officials who have proposed boycotts against businesses that support traditional marriage,” and “the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.”

You don’t need me to decipher the unwritten meanings in this text. But from a legal perspective, this is still permissible and when monoliths such as the GOP have clear policy positions on “traditional marriage” and all the follows, it is not surprising that “conversion therapy” and laws to ban this are struggling to come into force.

Final contradictions

Conversion therapy is a difficult subject. Some of you may back this as a legitimate approach, some of you will not. I do not support the concept of conversion therapy in any form, but can see the difficulty that the right to freedom of belief introduces — however abhorrent I might consider it to be.

But there remain two contradictions.

First, once you are an adult, the choice should be yours — and yours alone — to decide the life you want to lead. And I am very troubled by the Republican view it is the “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children.” Or, put another way, the right of parents to decide the sexuality of their child.

Shouldn’t this be the right of the individual alone to decide, and for us not to see parents rushing to “convert” their children before they’re no longer legally a minor?

The second contradiction is on the one hand religious groups want their right to beliefs upheld, yet on the other, they are imposing their “beliefs” to get others to conform to heterosexual norms through conversion therapy, reparative therapy, reintegrative therapy, or whatever other terms you choose to use.

Does that sit OK with you? It doesn’t with me.

I’ll leave you with two questions to consider.

  1. If you support genuine freedom of belief, can you then question someone else’s conviction that they are not “straight” and seek to change it?
  2. If you have legal protection for your beliefs, e.g. religion, should you then be attempting to alter the status of someone who can legally be non-heterosexual?

I know where I stand on this. How about you?

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Author/activist — articles on politics, social justice, equality, writing, mental health, marketing, sports and much more. Find me at https://milesetherton.com and across social media.

New York State
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