Despite decades of research against the practice – with almost every internationally recognised medical body condemning it – gay conversion therapy is still a modern-day institution that is legal across the world. The only places to have banned it are 14 states in the US and the Australian state of Victoria. Every other governing body has deemed this cruel and dangerous practice legally acceptable.
Conversion therapies were, however, once far more common. Before Stonewall and the ensuing gay rights movement it was firmly believed homosexuality was a mental disorder that should be treated. Queer people were locked up, submitted to electro-shock therapy, open abuse and even forced castration. After Stonewall, many medical institutions across the world declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, first in October of 1974 in Australia and New Zealand, then by the America Psychiatric Association a few months later, and finally by the World Health Organisation in 1990.
Today, the practice is often carried out through religious organisations who can claim to “pray away the gay.” While they don’t employ the same tactics as earlier institutions their methods of prayer, public shaming, regression techniques, and treating homosexuality as an unnatural pathology are just as damaging psychologically. Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reports that young LGBT+ people exposed to conversion therapy are eight times likelier to attempt suicide than other teenagers. They are 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3 times more likely to engage in high risk sexual activity that could lead to HIV.
"HRC reports that young LGBT+ people exposed to conversion therapy are eight times likelier to attempt suicide than other teenagers."
These elements further add to the alarming statistics LGBT+ youth face even without conversion therapy. “52 per cent of young LGBT people reported self harm either recently or in the past, compared to 25 per cent of heterosexual, non-trans young people,” explains Huma Munshi, Equality Improvement Manager at mental health charity Mind. “44 per cent of young LGBT people have considered suicide, compared to 26 per cent of heterosexual, non-trans young people”.
Munshi goes on to say conversion therapy is based on “intolerant, inaccurate and outdated assumptions about gender and sexual orientation… Following conversion therapy, people might feel ashamed of their identity and unable to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity at work, at home or in the world at large.”
The American Psychological Association reported that those who had undergone the therapy had high levels of anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, and sexual dysfunction.
In 2014 Ryan Kendall delivered testimony before the California State Assembly Committee describing how his experience with conversion therapy “destroyed my life and tore apart my family.”
“In order to stop the therapy that misled my parents into believing that I could somehow be made straight, I was forced to run away from home... at the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of conversion therapy, coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide.”
In an interview with the New Zealand television show ‘The Project’, Paul Stevens described how his parents made him undergo the therapy and how it was unsuccessful. "I was only 15, so going along, I wanted to change - I had been brought up to believe it was not okay for me to be gay, so I wanted to be able to change,” he said.
"It took about three years of being in the closet for me to realise that it wasn't working and that was really hard to step away from that and stop believing I could be healed.
"But it was when I started to meet other people… and started to realise a lot of what I had been told about being gay a lot of it wasn’t true.”
LGBT+ activist Vicky Beeching talks of how her conversion therapy culminated in a public ‘exorcism’ in front of 4,000 people at a religious convention when she was only 16.
"They claimed lesbians exist because they weren’t breastfed as babies."
Those that perpetrate these conversion therapies have a staunch and unflinching belief that homosexuality can be repressed through sheer will power, despite all scientific evidence. Chelette, a pastor of Living Waters, an American gay conversion camp that toured Australia, said that homosexuality is the result of childhood problems. We become gay if we “don’t get enough attention, affection and affirmation,” or suffer sexual abuse, or just don’t have enough friends. He said, “There is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is really either genetic or biological.”
Sue Bohlin, a so-called “ex-gay” who toured with Living Waters, claimed lesbians exist because they weren’t breastfed as babies. “They want to rest in another woman’s arms; they want to suckle at a breast. They want to gaze into the eyes of another woman like a baby would a mother.” She also blamed her own home country of spreading homosexuality by “glamorising” same-sex relationships on TV: “I’m sorry for sending American garbage to Australia but you pick up a lot of what we pump out to the rest of the world.”
For contrast, in 1997 the American Psychiatric Association put out a report explaining “there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’ as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation.” Furthermore, the American Psychological Association “affirms that same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviours are normal and positive variations of human sexuality regardless of sexual orientation identity… that there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.”