The UK government’s pledge to end the practice is backed by studies that show it can have devastating consequences, from depression to suicidal thoughts
By Emily Reynolds
Courtesy of WiredUK
Gabriel Arana was a teenager when his parents found out he was gay. His mother, concerned his life would be “too difficult” as a gay man, immediately booked an appointment with a therapist, Joseph Nicolosi, who promised to “cure” him of his homosexuality.
Arana, who later wrote about the experience for American Prospect in 2012, was experiencing what is often referred to as “gay conversion therapy” – therapy intended to get rid of same sex attraction. He is not alone. A recent £4.5 million government survey found that 2 per cent of its 108,000 UK respondents had undergone conversion therapy; a further 5 per cent had been offered it.
An LGBTQ+ action plan has been created in response to the report, with prime minister Theresa May pledging an end to the practice. MP Penny Mordaunt, minister for women and equalities and publisher of the report, has also said she will consider “all legislative and non-legislative options to prohibit promoting, offering or conducting conversion therapy”.
“Our intent is protect people who are vulnerable to harm or violence, whether that occurs in a medical, commercial or faith-based context,” she wrote. “We are not trying to prevent LGBT people from seeking legitimate medical support or spiritual support from their faith leader in the exploration of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Groups have already responded to the suggested ban, with Core Issues Trust, a Northern Ireland group, saying it will take legal advice if it happens. It says it provides a “space for individuals to safely explore their sexual attraction fluidity issues” via “standard psychotherapeutic practice”; its founder, Michael Davidson, said that “people have the right to choose the direction they want to go in” and that “mandatory gay just won’t work”.
“You cannot force people to be gay just because they have the feelings,” he said on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. “I will seek legal advice and we will do the right thing, but we’ll certainly be there and available for people who’ve had enough of having a gay ideology pushed down their throat.”
What is 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’. Writing in a 2011 piece that proved pivotal in the movement to ban the practice, journalist Patrick Strudwick outlined the therapy he received: prayer, non-evidence based regression techniques, and the framing of homosexuality as a pathology.
Arana’s experience, in the US, was similar, with a focus on seemingly traditional psycho-therapeutic techniques. He was given worksheets on which he was asked to work out his ‘true’ and ‘false’ sense on a rubric – the implication being that his attraction to men was false. Nicolosi suggested his attraction to other men was a projection – Arana wanted to be like them, he argued, and he was mistaking that longing for acceptance for attraction.
LGBTQ+ activist Vicky Beeching has also spoken and written extensively about her own experiences with gay conversion therapy – hers culminated in a public ‘exorcism’ in front of 4,000 people at a religious convention, aged 16. In more extreme cases, electric shocks and emetics have also been used in the therapies.
Outside of the clear moral, ethical and political issues with conversion therapy, studies that suggest it is beneficial lack validity, and there is a significant lack of research that suggest it is safe. One 2008 meta analysis found that the literature base used to support conversion therapy was “full of omissions which threaten the validity of available data”.
One therapist Strudwick visited also suggested that he had been sexually abused – which UCL psychiatrist professor Michael King described as “the absolute antithesis of what an exploration of sexual abuse should be about” and “the base of many false memory syndromes”. He also suggested her membership of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) be revoked.
The BACP itself says there is “no scientific, rational or ethical reason to treat people who identify within a range of human sexualities any differently from those who identify solely as heterosexual”, and every major health organisations in the UK – including the NHS, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and more – has condemned conversion therapy.
In 2017, all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK signed the Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement recognising that conversion therapy is harmful. Its key goal is to protect the public through a commitment to completely ending the practice of conversion therapy in the UK.
The health impacts
Any type of conversion therapy is based on “intolerant, inaccurate and outdated assumptions about gender and sexual orientation”, Huma Munshi, Equality Improvement Manager at mental health charity Mind, says.
It can lead to “a great deal of psychological distress”, with feelings of isolation and low self esteem common. Many who undergo conversion therapy end up with long-term mental health problems: anxiety, depression, self-image issues, and in many cases incidences of self harm and suicide. “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,” she says.
Munshi also points out that LGBTQ+ people are already more likely to experience mental health problems, often because of “bullying, rejection, stigma and discrimination”.
“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,” she says. “44 per cent of young LGBT people have considered suicide, compared to 26 per cent of heterosexual, non-trans young people”. This data underlines the additional cruelty of conversion therapy.
A 2013 article from the McGeorge Law Review found that the therapy can lead to “depression and suicidal tendencies”, also quoting Ryan Kendall’s testimony before the California State Assembly Committee: “conversion therapy destroyed my life and tore apart my family,” he said.
“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.”
Other research backs these findings. The validity of the therapy has been contested for years; a 1969 study found that those subjected to the therapy experienced anxiety, depression, impotence, relationship dysfunction and, in some cases, suicidal ideation. Other studies reported “debilitating depression, gastric distress, nightmare and anxiety”; others involved in the therapy began to abuse alcohol and drugs in order to deal with treatment-related depression.
A more recent analysis from the American Psychological Association reported a more comprehensive list of consequences: self-reports 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.
Munshi suggests that anyone who has been subjected to conversion therapy should urgently contact their GP and an LGBTQ+ organisation, particularly those who can offer specialist mental health support. (You can find a list of organisations which offer information and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning or queer people on Mind’s website).
There is, however, still a “lack of appropriate services” that meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Mind wants mental health services to be accessible to everyone,” she says. “Commissioners need to understand and take into account the importance of offering genuinely inclusive support that addresses the needs of this group and understands how LGBTQ+ related issues might affect mental health.”
Mind instead suggest that services adopt LGBTQ+ affirmative practice approaches – a process which involves “learning, reflection, analysis and planning, to ensure that a service demonstrates its understanding of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexism, and of the impact these have on the experience of LGBTQ+ people accessing services”.
“A person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed,” said Laura Russell, head of policy at LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall. “These so-called ‘therapies’ try to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, and this can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”
“Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are not ill.”
Emily Reynolds / Wired © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd