While acceptance of LGBTQ individuals has been growing rapidly in the last decade, there are still subsets of people who abhor any orientation other than heterosexual. Coming out is never an easy process for LGBTQ people, no matter their age. For teens experiencing same-sex attraction, particularly those whose families are deeply religious, there are added fears: “What if they kick me out?” “What if they disown me completely?” “What if they make me ‘pray the gay away?’”
Pray the gay away is a colloquial term referencing the practice of conversion therapy—the practice in which pseudoscience religious extremists attempt to change one’s sexual orientation. Parents can legally force their LGBTQ children into conversion therapy in all but 14 states, and for those LGBTQ teens living in the other 36 states, conversion therapy is a very real fear.
The stories survivors of conversion therapy tell are frightening to hear, even for those who are not LGBTQ. Survivors talk of forced exercise to the point of exhaustion and vomiting, withholding of food, emotional abuse couched as “social conditioning,” isolation, electric shocks as a form of aversion therapy—including shocks to specific, intimate areas of the body—and being forced to watch explicit content to learn “right” from “wrong.”
One survivor, Alex Cooper, was held apart from her Mormon parents by another couple for eight months. First, she was required to learn how to be a good housewife to “cure” her of being a lesbian. When that didn’t work, she was sleep deprived and forced to wear a backpack full of rocks that weighed 40 pounds to represent the physical burden of being gay. Other survivors talk about being forced to wear sandwich boards bearing the words, “I’m gay. Save me from temptation,” in their communities, because their rehabilitation was a community effort. Others have mentioned enduring hours of talk therapy where they were repeatedly told same-sex attraction guarantees they would contract HIV, or that the only reason they experienced same-sex attraction was because they were sexually abused when they were younger. For many who went through conversion therapy, the only way out was to say the therapy worked and they became straight, then live a lie until they could be free of the authority figures who forced them into conversion therapy in the first place.
There are survivors who were able to escape by calling friends or supportive relatives to come get them, sneaking out and running from the facility, or waiting until they were allowed to leave for school and escape from there. Those that had supportive friends or family were lucky, but others had to find a way to support themselves by working whatever job a minor could get. There are a sad, and alarmingly high, number of conversion therapy veterans who commit suicide, either to escape the torture at the time, or years later, when the psychological damage they endured gets the better of them.
For these reasons, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American College of Physicians, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and other highly respected boards of medicine and psychology in the United States reject conversion therapy as a legitimate treatment. These boards have called into question the ethics of the practice, particularly in the absence of research showing a scientific basis for changing someone’s sexual orientation. These medical and psychological experts all contend that same-sex attraction is not a mental disorder in need of treatment and that sexual orientation cannot be changed. It is a normal, healthy variation of human sexuality, and as such, needs no intervention. Furthermore, the effects of conversion therapy on patients are harmful, leading to increased anxiety and depression, and intensified suicidal thoughts and ideation.
State legislatures are beginning to agree. Besides the 14 states that already ban the practice for minors, conversion therapy ban bills are being raised in other states. Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Indiana and Minnesota have all introduced legislation that would ban the practice, and at least two of those have happened since the beginning of 2019. Denver became the most recent city to ban conversion therapy through a unanimous city council vote on Jan. 7.
Utah is currently considering a bill banning conversion therapy, introduced by two Republican lawmakers, but the bill is facing backlash from an interesting source. While the Mormon Church put out a statement that it does not intend to fight the ban, a number of therapeutic professionals have opposed the ban as too broad. They argue that it prevents them from providing necessary talk therapy treatment to clients who are not comfortable with their sexuality. Even if these professionals do not intend to change their clients’ sexuality, they worry that the ban will cause them to limit the help they provide out of fear that their conversation may violate the ban. New Jersey, one of the first states to ban conversion therapy, is also facing a lawsuit by the Liberty Council, a group that files lawsuits based on evangelical Christian values. This lawsuit asserts many of the same arguments as those opposed to the Utah ban—interference with the doctor-patient or counselor-patient relationship.
The topic of conversion therapy has recently come into mainstream social consciousness, in part because of the release of two acclaimed films: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a Sundance award winner, and the higher profile film, “Boy Erased,” starring Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges. “Boy Erased” is based on a true story and depicts a boy, 19, outed to his Baptist parents, who force him to choose between being ostracized from his family, friends and faith, or attending conversion therapy. Both films are emotionally charged and reach a broad range of viewers—one aimed at teens and the other at parents—hopefully showing a larger audience the dangers of conversion therapy than has seen it before. Neither film is the first of its kind, but their impact may be significant if the social landscape is ready to listen, and more importantly, do something about it.
Conversion therapy is not a new practice, but it is being discussed in a new way from both sides. The silence surrounding conversion therapy is falling as survivors speak out and demand to be heard. The authors of many of these stories vividly describe the abuse, and in some cases torture, they endured as part of these conversion therapy camps. Medical and psychological professionals say it’s not only unhelpful but harmful to those who go through it, and the only healthy choice is to ban this pseudo-therapy. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not mental disorders, they are not afflictions that need to be treated, or aberrations one can pray away. Hopefully, willing legislators, vocal survivors and continued discussion can stop this practice. LGBTQ teens, and even older members of the queer community, need to hear that their lives are not something that needs to be fixed, and they deserve love from who they love. That affirmation needs to be heard by the entire community, but most importantly by those most affected by conversion therapy—our young people.