What is 'gay conversion therapy' and how was the misconception that same-sex desire could be 'cured' popularised?

Theresa May pledges to eradicate 'abhorrent' attempts to change LGBT+ sexuality with electroshock treatment and nausea-inducing drugs

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 09 August 2018 13:24 BST
Theresa May vows to eradicate ‘abhorrent’ gay conversion therapy as part of LGBT+ equality plan

Theresa May has vowed to eradicate “gay conversion therapy”, describing the practice as “abhorrent”.

The women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt told The Independent that so-called “gay cures”, intended to alter the sexual orientation of LGBT+ people, amount to “abuse of the worst kind and must be stamped out”.

But what exactly is it and how prevalent is it around the world?

Stonewall defines the “cure” as “any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or to suppress a person’s gender identity”.

In the UK, the NHS has said such practices – which include electroshock therapy and the administering of nausea-inducing drugs while the subject is exposed to gay pornography to encourage aversion – are harmful and unethical and has signed a memorandum of understanding condemning it.

While most healthcare organisations around the world agree that homosexuality is not a mental health affliction and that so-called conversion therapies have no basis in science, faith in such treatments abide in countries where anti-LGBT+ attitudes persist, such as China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Uganda, Jamaica and Indonesia.

The belief that same-sex attraction is a curable disorder - no more than a transitory psychological state that can be realigned at will – stems from late 19th century advances in psychological care, prior to which it was regarded as a “sin” or symptom of moral corruption.

Sigmund Freud’s belief that people are born bisexual and subsequently find their sexual preferences along a spectrum indirectly gave rise to the assumption that “aberrant” inclinations could therefore be redirected back towards heteronormativity with the proper stimulation.

Freud toyed with “correcting” homosexuality through hypnosis while his fellow Austrian Eugen Steinach (1861-1944) experimented with transplanting testicles from straight men into gay men in order to redress what he believed to be a hormonal imbalance.

Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933) meanwhile believed the root cause lay in a neurotic misogyny and Anna Freud (1895-1982), Sigmund’s daughter, felt homosexuality was a manifestation of repressed castration anxieties.

Most horrifically of all, American neurologist Walter Freeman (1895-1972) carried out “ice-pick” lobotomies of gay men and women across 23 states in the 1940s and 50s.

The growing social acceptance of LGBT+ citizens in the West since the 1960s has seen the American Christian right emerge as a powerful opposition voice, heightening its homophobic rhetoric when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its roster of mental health disorders in 1974.

Christian ministries began to engage in the “reparative” treatment of gay, lesbian, bi and trans members of their community, often at the instigation of their parents, seeking to “save” them through prayer, Bible study and counselling.

These interventions reinforced the damaging idea that such sexual inclinations were “unnatural” and something to be ashamed of, a toxic notion whose by-products were inevitably depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide.

This same position saw conservative American churches revive the notion that homosexuality was a sin and a threat to the country’s moral infrastructure and family values, even characterising the HIV/Aids crisis of the 1980s as God’s judgement on sinners, a plague to punish the “deviant”.

In many cases, pastors invested in promoting “cure” services outed themselves as ”ex-gays”, talking openly about their own experiences of overcoming same-sex desire and offering to help others follow suit.

Wealthy Christian lobbyists spent $600,000 (£465,000) on pro-conversion therapy advertisements in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times as recently as 1998 while the likes of Joseph Nicolosi, a California clinical psychologist who died in 2017, made a lucrative career out of promoting pseudoscientific treatments.

The friendship between US vice president Mike Pence and his “mentor” Dr James Dobson of the Christian pressure group Focus on the Family, which has promoted the practice for 40 years, has been much criticised of late.

“Conversion therapy” has been largely discredited since the turn of the millennium due to the weight of academic research disproving the effectiveness of electroshock treatment and masturbatory reconditioning, which can often amount to little more than torture.

The US Surgeon General, David Satcher, issued a report stating that “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed” in 2001.

But the belief that homosexuality is curable nevertheless persists around the world and typing the phrase “gay conversion therapy” into a Google search bar today offers “gay conversion therapy near me” as its first suggestion, emphasising the need for greater protection from harmful practices that commonly target the most vulnerable.

Channel 4’s Unreported World documentary series won plaudits for one episode in 2015 following the plight of LGBT+ activists going undercover to expose illegal electroshock therapy being offered in clinics in China, despite the country removing homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001.

Today, “gay conversion therapy” is only banned outright in Argentina, Brazil, Malta and Taiwan, with individual regions or provinces carrying bans in Canada, Australia, Spain and the US, where 13 states have prohibitions in place. In Malaysia, it is not only sanctioned but government-backed.

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