The Cost: The History of Conversion Therapy in the United States

Image from the film “Boy Erased”

Article by Ruthie

Pray away the gay. It’s a statement that reflects a very subtle yet prevalent facet of American life: conversion (or, as it is known in the scientific field, reparative) therapy. A quick trip to Google defines it as “the psychotherapy aimed at changing a person’s homosexuality, based on the view that homosexuality is a mental disorder”, but Google is just technology. The people who have endured the brutality of this practice are living, breathing, beating hearts, unable to thrive in their own identity, either by outside force or their own internalised self hatred. Rooted in the historic, fundamental belief that homosexuality was a disease afflicting the brain into same gender attraction or love, psychiatrists promoted a solution: converting these people through countless hours of self-shaming conversation, simulation, and abuse. Most people assume that this is an outdated and taboo point of reference, but it is not as in the past as one might think. A recent report published in January 2018 by the Williams Institute at University of California, Los Angeles, found that around 698,000 LGBTQ+ adults between the ages of 18-59 have had reparative therapy in their lifetime, and 20,000 LGBTQ+ youth will endure conversion therapy from a licensed healthcare provider before they turn 18. Similarly, the report estimated that 57,000 LGBTQ+ youth would receive reparative therapy from a religious influence in their life before the age of 18. Although the practice was discredited by the American Psychiatric Association and numerous healthcare providers, only 10 states in our country have an outright ban.

The recently released film Boy Erased highlights the reality of how conversion therapy affects its participants. Based on the true story of Garrard Conley, a writer who at the age of 19 was sent to a conversion therapy center by his deeply religious pastor father and ended up at his lowest of lows after six months of sustained hate-mongering. Walking out of the film Boy Erased is like walking out of an intense, difficult museum. You feel enlightened and heartbroken at the same time, and the emotions come in equal measure. Perhaps there should be a warning sign, but then it might deter viewers. And this movie cannot be shunned. Garrard, renamed Jared in the film, is sent to a (fictionally named) “Live for Action” center by his pastor father after he tells his parents that he is gay. In small town Arkansas, this is considered a hugely shocking revelation. Jared’s father must call on the wisdom of his ultra-Christian friends: old, white, heterosexual men who radiate the knowledge of the Bible and not much else, to guide him towards the inevitable decision to send Jared to the center. Although the Live for Action program is fictional, there are thousands of other places like it out there. These programs are especially popular in the Bible Belt, where flagrant homophobia is often times a pillar of Conservatism in the Christian communities it inhabits.

It is quietly seething, the ideology of exclusion and the ignorance the programs garner. In the film, the participants are “guided” by a deeply Evangelical, inflammatory “doctor”. They create gene-o-grams of their family’s sins (alcohol, drugs, violence, homosexuality), shamefully recount their sexual experiences with others of the same sex, and are forced to channel their perceived “rage” at empty chairs. Most shockingly, they hold a mock funeral for one of the participants, beating his gay identity into a wooden coffin using bibles and blind hatred. This scene was not a fictional element added for style. It really happened, and these people really lived through the horrific, psychological manipulation that is conversion therapy.

This pseudoscientific practice is rooted in the fundamental idea that homosexuality, by all accounts, is a human choice, a condition that can be talked through and squared away, much like financial advising or going for your annual physical. Except it just isn’t. Reparative therapy dates all the way back to 1899, when a German man bragged proudly to his audience that he managed to quell a subject’s same-sex desires through interminable rounds of hypnosis and some casual prostitution. Of course, in the 19th century, homosexuality was violently condemned, much like perceived witchcraft, yet only one phenomena persisted into the 20th century, and although less frequent, through the dawn of the 21st. The theories were endless. In the 1900’s, a small number of homosexual men were given testicle replacement surgery because of a single thread theory that homosexuality was actually caused by a testicular issue, purported by Eugen Steinach, an Endocrinologist from Austria. This was later disproved and discontinued, although the brutality of genital castration is prevalent in many countries across the world. In the 19th and even 20th centuries, with the passing of each new decade came a flurry of new hypotheses, a lack of scientific evidence, and their equally outrageous solutions.

There was a recent podcast done on This American Life, called “81 Words”, about the removal of homosexuality from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association decided that because homosexual people were not actively upset by their sexuality, or trying to change (most homosexuals anyway), it could not rightly be classified as a mental illness. It psychologically shifted away from pathology, like left handedness, no longer a disease. Although these 81 words changed the course of the psychological, scientific stance on homosexuality, this did not deter avid aversion/conversion therapy proponents, many of them psychiatrists. In 1973, the psychological definition of homosexuality was progressively altered toward the arc of acceptance, but reparative therapy was still seen as its alleviate in the eyes of many. It would take many more years for this to be dismissed from the scientific world. Even so, it is still not entirely gone.

With the intergenerational shift of the 80’s, 90’s and now the early 2000’s came an influx of closeted gay young people questioning their own sexuality, still unsure of their place in the modern world. As homosexuality became more normalized in society, a flowing stream of activism travelled across the country. It was powerful; it was revolutionary.

Today, politicians who seem to support conversion therapy argue that it actually does work. Take our Vice President, Mike Pence, for example. In 2000, he wrote on his website that funds from a program to help people suffering from HIV/AIDS should go towards companies aimed at changing people’s sexual behaviors. And that’s not all. In 2017, members of the Republican National Convention supported a platform that would in essence help preserve parents’ rights to send their children to conversion therapy. The right wing organization, The Family Research Council, advocates for conversion on the basis of mental health care, and has close ties with many Republican politicians, such as Vice President Mike Pence. Here lies the roots of a closely orchestrated system of allyship that sets the national standard for the treatment of thousands of people. Ironic, considering the term ally in LGBTQ+ vernacular applies to people who support their rights.

In New Hampshire, House Bill 587 was passed on January 1st of this new year, banning conversion therapy on any minor. Governor Sununu signed the bill into effect, although a NH Christian conservative group urged him not to. The group argues that the bill banning conversion therapy is a threat to the privacy of all citizens and to parents’ rights to private healthcare to their children. The group’s director claimed that the law represents bigotry towards people with “common sense”. The bill states that if conversion therapy is attempted by any provider, they will now be subject to disciplinary action by their bosses, the heads of healthcare institutions and ultimately the law, though a clear regulatory plan has not been specified by the bill. This means  that 7 years after the bill was first proposed in 2012, and consequently shut down upon entering the statehouse, it is now present in our state constitution.

As seen with any movement towards social progress, there will always be a well of resistance that surfaces, even stronger now, than before the cause was ever championed for. The hate that lurks in dark shadows of our country seeps out under these circumstances. That’s the way America works, founded on the principle of freedom, among other things. The freedom to criticize, theorize, insinuate, blame, belittle, harrow, devastate. Yet we have always struggled to acknowledge the freedom to love, celebrate, identify, and accept. These seem simpler, and better for the whole of our country, yet they are the freedoms that always seem to be threatened. Representative democracy often times did not, and still does not, extend to include marginalized groups, and LGBTQ+ people in particular. Written into the granite of our state, conversion therapy is now legally defunct. And hopefully it will continue to be written into the stones of other states, so that the stories of these people will remind us all that they can never be erased.