Conversion Therapy in the United States

While several official psychology organizations, including the American Psychological Association, have invalidated conversion therapy methods, it is still a phenomenon prevalent throughout the United States today.

Conversion Therapy goes by many names: ex-gay therapy, reparative therapy, same-sex attraction (SSA) therapy, and more; however, it is important to note that these practices are by no means a form of therapy at all. The American Psychological Association openly opposes “any psychiatric treatment […] 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” (2000). President Obama has also recently publicly supported the end of conversion therapies for minors (Jackson, 2015). Even with such reputable authorities and experts of the field opposing the use of conversion therapy, these practices are still being widely used across the country today. Thus, I look to examine the current state of conversion therapy, from types of treatments and its effects to past and ongoing attempts to ban it. I will also introduce an interactive map visualization of current conversion therapies in the United States and provide an analysis of the findings as well as how we can move toward future efforts.

Following President Obama’s call to action to eradicate therapies that claim to alter patients’ sexualities, it is important to examine the current state of this issue in the United States in order to discuss how we can move forward in abolishing conversion therapy practices.


What is Conversion Therapy?

The ultimate goal of conversion therapy is to attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual. According to a 2013 survey from Beyond Ex-Gay, a support group for those who have gone through ex-gay experiences, people seek out this type of therapy for a number of reasons including unresolved sexual abuse, a skewed notion of what it means to be gay, and a desire to be normal. Some individuals undergo this “treatment” in response to pressure from family, friends, religious leaders, and society to conform to heteronormative standards.

With no support from official psychology organizations, there are no guidelines as to how to conduct conversion therapy, which allows for the use of dangerous and uncontrollable methods. While the most common conversion therapy techniques include counseling, support groups, or retreats, in some cases, conversion therapy is achieved through more extreme means such as dating or marrying someone of the opposite sex, sex therapy, or lobotomy. Even more strange practices include harming oneself with a rubber band every time they have a non-heterosexual thought, playing sports, the use of Prozac or other similar drugs, gaining weight, and hypnosis (Truth Wins Out, 2014). What many of these methods work towards is for participants to “regain their masculinity,” either by working through a traumatic childhood experience or becoming more of a man based on seemingly arbitrary definitions. In one of many undercover investigations into conversion therapy, Ted Cox (2014) recalls one method where retreat leaders recreated a participant’s relationship with a new father by asking him to beat an effigy of his old father with a baseball bat to death.

These clearly harmful methods create lasting effects beyond these ex-gay experiences. Those who go through conversion therapy often “successfully” think that they are now straight, even though there is no scientific evidence that one can change their sexual orientation. Most concerning is that individuals often resort to suicide attempts after “failing” the conversion to heterosexuality that these programs promise.


What’s Been Done to Stop Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy is currently only banned for minors in California, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington D.C.. This means that 77% of the United States LGBT population live in states that have no laws protecting them from conversion therapy for minors (Movement Advancement Project, 2015). Encouragingly, many other states have introduced bills that ban state-licensed therapists from using conversion therapy practices for minors.

These types of bills are especially important for minors because this group is most often forced to go through conversion therapy. Leelah Alcorn was seventeen years old when she committed suicide and serves as a tragic example of why conversion therapy should be banned throughout the United States. Following her coming out as transgender, Alcorn’s parents forced her to attend conversion therapy, instead of getting treatment from licensed medical professionals who deal with transgender transitions, who left her with no hope and did not stop her suicide. After her death, a petition was created, Leelah’s Law, calling for President Obama and the government to ban conversion therapy for transgender youth.

Other than laws that protect minors from conversion therapy, not much else has been done to help protect potential victims from its harmful effects. Many organizations cite their freedom of speech and religion as protection from interference.


Interactive Map of Current Conversion Therapies in the US

This visualization plots current conversion therapies in the United States. Superimposed on the map is a distribution of population. Through this visualization, we can see that conversion therapies are more commonly found in more populated areas.

Two of the most prominent organizations that practice conversion therapy are People Can Change and Desert Streams.

The former hosts three “experiential weekends” as part of their conversion treatment, two of which are targeted towards men who want to want to “resolve unwanted homosexual attractions.” Journey Into Manhood is a two-day retreat that uses a variety of methods to help men prevent their same-sex attractions, and Journey Beyond is for those who have graduated from this program. On their website, they advertise the use of journals, visualization, group sharing, safe healing touch, and “intensive emotional-release work.” They work towards finding an emotional breakthrough in order to reawaken participants’ “authentic heterosexual masculinity.” Their methods are based in the idea that non-heterosexual men are all heterosexual but have been affected in some way that has caused them to be attracted to men, and they work to identify and overcome this obstacle in order to reawaken their heterosexuality. They also advertise that the are not a religiously affiliated organization and that participation is completely voluntary. The weekend experience costs $650, not including travel to the camp.

Desert Streams uses a different approach to conversion therapy by establishing support groups in individual churches. They run six programs, but three target Christians who are dealing with issues of sexuality: Falling Forward: Men Seeking Purity, Crosscurrent, and Living Waters. The organization advertises that they are for Christians only struggling with “sexual and relational problems,” and they use “biblical wisdom, godly support, and the power of prayer.” Churches can start a group and Desert Streams will provide them with training and resources.

There are several limitations to this visualization that should be noted before making any significant claims. First, the positions of these scatter points on the map are by no means certain, since many organizations do not disclose their actual locations. These location plots are rough estimates of where these conversion camps are being held. This is also not a representation of every single conversion therapy still ongoing in the United States. There are quite possibly more organizations and more places in the United States that still practice conversion therapy.

Conversion therapy is an ongoing phenomenon and it is important that our government becomes more aware of this so that they can ban these practices, which have been refuted as effective by many scientific communities. Conversion therapy is based in the idea that any deviation from heterosexuality is wrong and should be fixed. This type of ideology is harmful to the LGBT community as they contemplate their place in society. Telling these individuals that they need to be “fixed” because of their sexual orientation is damaging and can harm their mental health and potentially lead them to attempt suicide.


References

  1. American Psychiatric Association (2000, May), Position Statement on Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation (Reparative or Conversion Therapies), American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from http://www.psych.org/Departments/EDU/Library/APAOfficialDocumentsandRelated/
  2. Bizarre Techniques. (2014). Retrieved November 16, 2015, from http://www.truthwinsout.org/bizarre-techniques/
  3. The Ex-Gay Survivor’s Survey Results – Beyond Ex-Gay. (2013). Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.beyondexgay.com/survey/results.htmlJackson, D. (2015, April 9).
  4. Obama backs efforts to end ‘conversion therapy’ Retrieved November 15, 2015, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2015/04/09/obama-conversion-therapy-white-house-petition-leelah-alcorn/25505091/
  5. Cox, T. (2014, June 10). I went undercover at a gay Christian conversion camp. Retrieved November 10, 2015, from http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/undercover-gay-conversion-camp/
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Calvin Liang
Managing Editor.
Calvin Liang is a junior majoring in Engineering Psychology and minoring in Computer Science. He can be reached at calvin.liang@tufts.edu.

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