Conversion Therapy

Chair in roomConversion therapy—sometimes referred to as reparative therapy or sexual reorientation therapy—is therapy designed to change one’s sexual orientation to heterosexual. The practice is a controversial one that has been disavowed by a number of organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Social Workers, and the American Counseling Association. Conversion therapy is also employed in attempts to convert a transgender person’s gender expression to match the sex that person was assigned at birth.

What Is Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy is not a monolith. Rather, it is an umbrella term for a wide array of approaches designed to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Sometimes people offering conversion therapy are not licensed mental health professionals; they may be religious officials, self-taught advocates, or people who claim to have changed their own sexual orientation using conversion therapy. In other cases conversion therapists may be trained in psychology and mental health, offering conversion therapy alongside treatment for a host of psychological challenges such as depression or anxiety.

Conversion therapy typically encourages people to change or conceal who they are, convincing them that their sexual orientation or gender expression is a source of shame or danger.Conversion therapists use a range of approaches that can include conventional talk therapy, prayer, re-education, hypnosis, or aversion therapy. Aversion therapy is the most controversial approach because of its potential to turn dangerous. As recently as the 1970s, for example, many conversion therapy programs used electroshock therapy or vomit-inducing chemical compounds when a person in treatment demonstrated an attraction to a member of the same sex. Milder aversive techniques include encouraging a person to snap a rubber band on his or her wrist when experiencing same-sex attractions.

Many aversive techniques, particularly those deemed physically abusive, have largely fallen out of favor in the United States. Today, many conversion therapists draw from conventional psychotherapeutic practices, employing principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, to help people change their thoughts. Others argue that early trauma, including sexual abuse, can change sexual orientation, and by addressing this trauma, they believe a person’s sexual orientation can be changed or modified.

Who Pursues Conversion Therapy?

Though any adult can freely pursue conversion therapy, children may do so at the behest of their parents. Conversion therapy for minors is particularly controversial, and many U.S. states have banned the practice. Some children run away from treatment designed to change their sexual orientation or become depressed, ashamed, or confused. Others develop suicidal urges. For example, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, committed suicide in 2014 after undergoing conversion therapy; this event brought national attention to conversion therapy.

Some adults pursue conversion therapy so that they can bring their personal lives into alignment with their religious or political beliefs. Though not all religions condemn non-heterosexuality, many do, and religion may figure prominently for adults who enter conversion therapy. Those who feel that their conversion therapy was successful may become advocates for the practice.

Life as a non-heterosexual person in a society that provides privilege to people who are heterosexual can be fraught with challenges. One nationally representative study found that LGBT youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their non-LGBT peers. A small study of 55 transgender teens found that 25% had attempted suicide. Discrimination, religious stigma, family rejection, and a host of other factors can influence people who are LGBT to attempt to alter their sexual orientation.

Conversion therapy may also be directed at those who are transgender. In recognition of the fact that being transgender is not a mental health concern, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed gender identity disorder as a diagnosis, replacing it in the fifth (most current) edition with gender dysphoria, which is described as the distress experienced when a person’s actual gender does not align with the sex assigned at birth.

Does Conversion Therapy Work?

Most studies suggest that sexual orientation cannot be changed. Even when sexual orientation is believed to have changed, though, it may come at a hefty price. A person who pursues conversion therapy is typically taught to suppress his or her desires, reject his or her identity, and replace his or her sexual expression with the type of sexuality someone else says is appropriate.

Many people who have experienced conversion therapy report that it made them feel depressed, anxious, and even suicidal. Not all people who participate in conversion therapy condemn the practice, though. Some say conversion therapy helped them transition to heterosexuality; others say it did not change their orientation, but helped them resist or deny their sexual expression.

The Controversy Surrounding Conversion Therapy

Most mental health professionals agree that ethical therapy encourages self-exploration, self-acceptance, and increased insight. Indeed, one role of good therapists is to help people eliminate unhealthy beliefs about themselves and others. Conversion therapy, though, typically encourages people to change or conceal who they are, convincing them that their sexual orientation or gender expression is a source of shame and danger. Every mainstream therapeutic body accepts that homosexuality is not a mental health issue, but conversion therapy treats it as such. Conversion therapy is especially problematic when parents force it upon their children. Forced conversion therapy may lead to anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and a sense of profound rejection.

Therapists who endorse conversion therapy argue that it does not have to be damaging. Some conversion therapy advocates point to non-violent conversion therapy as a harmless personal choice. But many therapists, professional organizations, and people who have experienced conversion therapy point to the psychological damage that results from the effort to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW in Brooklyn, New York, argues that conversion therapy does not have to be physically damaging to be harmful. “All of the major mental health professions have denounced conversion therapy because it is not only ineffective, but also harmful. Sometimes the harm is physical, as in the case of electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs. More often, the harm is psychological. Conversion therapy makes empty promises. When the treatment does not work, clients often experience guilt and shame. Blame is placed on the individual, who may be led to believe they did not try hard enough. The practice of conversion therapy also carries a social cost, as it perpetuates the myths that sexual orientation is a choice or that it can be changed, both of which are not true,” Schwartz said.

A host of professional organizations in the field of mental health and social work have spoken out against the approach. GoodTherapy.org opposes conversion therapy, and does not list therapists known to offer such services.

Legal Issues Surrounding Conversion Therapy

California, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. have banned conversion therapy for minors, and states such as Arizona, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, Iowa, New York, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas have taken preliminary legislative measures to eliminate the practice.

In early 2015, Oklahoma experienced intense backlash in response to its efforts to protect conversion therapy. Republican Rep. Sally Kern introduced the bill to “protect” parents’ ability to pursue such treatment for their children; the bill was later amended to prohibit “physical pain, such as electroshock or electro-convulsive therapy, touch therapy, pornography exposure, or vomit-induction therapy,” controversial tactics which not all therapists who practice conversion therapy use. Kern argues that the freedom to pursue conversion therapy for minors is a parents’ rights issue.

Sharon Glassburn, MA, MFT in West Hartford, Connecticut, disagrees. “By choosing to provide reparative therapy, therapists neglect their ethical obligation to do good because they aren’t providing effective therapy. They are actively doing harm. Sometimes, ethical therapy isn’t just meeting a client where they’re at. We have to challenge viewpoints and deconstruct ideologies that are actively harmful. These may come from the client, the client’s family, or the larger community. When any trusted person refuses to accept a client’s gender identity or sexual orientation, that is harmful to the client and damaging to the relationship. For clients whose own families and church communities are no longer safe spaces for clients to exist as they are, therapists should not reinforce an unnecessary sense of shame. Same-sex attraction is not pathology; this too has been established by our profession since 1973. Therapy based around changing something about a client that is not problematic—even if the environmental response to this aspect of the client is challenging—is not okay, and neglects our ethical obligations,” she said.

In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a suit against a New Jersey conversion therapy organization for fraudulent practices. SPLC filed the suit on behalf of a group of young men and their families who were deceived by the organization’s promises to change the young men’s sexual orientations. In June of 2015, a New Jersey jury found the group, along with the life coach to whom they referred clients, guilty of consumer fraud, requiring the organization to refund thousands of dollars to the plaintiffs. The suit highlighted the mistreatment the teen boys experienced, which included being forced to undress during individual and group sessions.

In April of 2015, President Obama issued a statement that appears in conjunction with a petition calling for a ban on conversion therapy, particularly for minors, that was inspired largely by Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. The statement expresses Mr. Obama’s concern about conversion therapy’s “potentially devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer youth,” and demonstrates the administration’s support for bans on the therapy for minors at the state level. Legislation to ban the practice has been introduced in eighteen states.

Therapy is designed to help people grow and heal from difficult life experiences, not to “convert” or “repair” the part of a person that is deemed to be flawed by others.Alternatives to Conversion Therapy

Intending to change a person’s sexual orientation through therapy is not the goal of ethical therapy. Ethical therapists work collaboratively with their clients. In other words, the therapist should not be operating from any personal bias or ulterior motive and the person seeking therapy should be involved in establishing goals and guiding the therapy process. Therapy is designed to help people grow and heal from difficult life experiences, not to “convert” or “repair” the part of a person that is deemed to be flawed by others.

A person who seeks therapy for feeling conflicted about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity is not wrong to do so. Therapy can help to unravel the deeper emotional issues that give rise to one’s conflicted feelings, leading a person to develop a deeper and more confident sense of self. There are many types of therapy that can help a person address feelings of confusion, anger, or shame, among others, or traumatic experiences such as discrimination, bullying, or sexual abuse.

As long as a large portion of the population writes off LGBT identities as flawed, immoral, and even potentially criminal, LGBT people will continue to face innumerable challenges. One study found that 21% of LGBT employees had experienced workplace discrimination, and violence continues to be a problem for the LGBT community; more than 50% of transgender people in the U.S. have experienced some form of harassment in a public place. This does not mean that LGBT people should “convert” to heteronormativity, though. Many therapists offer services that affirm LGBT identities, help people come out of the closet, and offer assistance with navigating the unique challenges associated with an LGBT identity.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/therapeutic-response.pdf?utm_source=LifeSiteNews.com+Daily+Newsletter&utm_campaign=635da942bd-LifeSiteNews_com_Intl_Full_Text_02_26_2013&utm_medium=email
  2. Fox, F. (2015, January 8). Leelah Alcorn’s suicide: Conversion therapy is child abuse. Retrieved from http://time.com/3655718/leelah-alcorn-suicide-transgender-therapy/
  3. Gay conversion therapy bill clears Oklahoma House committee. (2015, February 24). Retrieved from http://newsok.com/gay-conversion-therapy-bill-clears-oklahoma-house-committee/article/5396127
  4. Hartmann, Margaret. (2015, April 9). Where the States Stand in the Fight to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/04/where-the-states-stand-on-gay-conversion-therapy.html
  5. Iowa senate panel approves ban on conversion therapy. (2015, February 17). Retrieved from http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2015/02/17/iowa-senate-panel-approves-ban-on-conversion-therapy/
  6. James, Susan Donaldson. (2011, March 30). Mormon ‘Gay Cure’ Study Used Electric Shocks Against Homosexual Feelings. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/mormon-gay-cures-reparative-therapies-shock-today/story?id=13240700
  7. LGBT youth. (2014, November 12). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
  8. Lopez, R. (2013, November 21). A rundown of LGBT workplace discrimination statistics. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/21/business/la-fi-mo-a-rundown-of-lgbt-workplace-discrimination-20131121
  9. Michael Ferguson, et al. v. Jonah, et al. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/case-docket/michael-ferguson-et-al-v-jonah-et-al 
  10. Shear, Michael D. (2015, April 8). Obama to Call for End to “Conversion” Therapies for Gay and Transgender Youth. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/09/us/politics/obama-to-call-for-end-to-conversion-therapies-for-gay-and-transgender-youth.html?rref=politics

Last Updated: 10-26-2017

  • 17 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Charlotte F.

    Charlotte F.

    May 28th, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    Hello, I have been looking for a reparative therapist in the UK, ideally close to London, and I was wondering if I could get any contact numbers or email addresses? Google isn’t coming up with anything and health professional advise me against it, but I’m really desperate.

    Thank,
    Char F

  • LGBT Lives Matter

    LGBT Lives Matter

    November 13th, 2016 at 6:08 AM

    Charlotte,
    Please don’t pursue conversion therapy. It’s torture. Being gay is not a choice, nor something to be ashamed of. Conversion therapy doesn’t help you love yourself, it does quite the opposite. Please, please, please go to a therapist that can help you work through your feelings regarding your sexuality (or your gender)- it’s so much better in the long run. There is nothing shameful about being gay, there is nothing shameful about being transgender. Things are getting better. We have a way to go but things are getting better for us. Talk to LGBT people, attend LGBT groups and attend pride. Experience what it feels like to be around others like you. Experience the love, and the feeling and the good lives that we lead. I really hope you get the help you need, please don’t sign yourself up for conversion therapy. They aren’t really therapists, they’re bigots who overlook internalised homophobia and transphobia. Please take care of yourself.

  • Barry

    Barry

    January 26th, 2018 at 8:09 AM

    It is very important to me that I have this therapy I hate being gay and just want to be normal like everyone else. You have no right telling me what to do. Shame on you.

  • harry m

    harry m

    January 26th, 2018 at 10:29 AM

    barry boy, stay strong and fight ,your victory is inevitable

  • Michael

    Michael

    May 22nd, 2018 at 9:49 AM

    This is hypocritical. If an adult who is gay/bi wants to be more heterosexual for whatever reason who are you to tell them otherwise? It’s not unlike berating a trans person for seeking therapy to further align themselves. Therapy doesn’t go one way and it’s not your call.

  • Toby C

    Toby C

    January 9th, 2018 at 6:46 AM

    I am very interested in this therapy and I strongly support your work

  • Aiden V

    Aiden V

    December 19th, 2016 at 2:50 PM

    Hello,
    Here’s a little bit about me. I’m an activist and this topic is very close to my heart. Please let me know if you can use me during a campaign or other event.
    youtube.com/watch?v=xsTofj5BvUA

    A victim of homophobia, rape and violence speaks out. Conversion therapy is very dangerous and detrimental. It teaches kids to hate themselves, to deny who they are and in many cases, to commit suicide. It is time to outlaw conversion therapy!

    Thank you,

    Aiden Vargas

  • Carly E.

    Carly E.

    February 13th, 2017 at 5:55 PM

    I’m a fourteen year old girl and I want this therapy for my sexuality, and no one can tell me not to. If people trust their young children that are going through phases to call themselves a wrong gender then I should have the right to say I want to be corrected.

  • Aiden V

    Aiden V

    February 14th, 2017 at 1:43 AM

    Point taken! My first suggestion is to be aware that Conversion “Therapy” often involves electro-shocks and drugs to induce vomiting! My second suggestion is to listen to what conversion-therapy, survivors have to say about their experience; I am one of them! I still remember feeling their fingers going down my throat every time they tried to make me puke! Conversion “Therapy” will leave a painful mark on you for the rest of your life! My third – and last suggestion is that you wait until you’re at least 18. Take some time to thoroughly research this topic before making such a life-altering decision. I still wake up sweating and screaming because of all the nightmares. CT also uses many other self-hating and destructive methods; so it’s better to take your time and wait until you’re at least 18. Remember: Knowledge is Power – and with power comes responsibility!
    Please take a few minutes and watch one of my videos:
    youtube.com/watch?v=u_6LqojwrLM

  • Perla

    Perla

    February 26th, 2017 at 2:44 PM

    I’m writing a paper and would like to know who the author of this article is.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    February 27th, 2017 at 9:31 AM

    Hi Perla,
    Because this page has no single author and is regularly revisited and revised, this is how you would cite it:

    Conversion Therapy. (2016, September 23). Retrieved from
    https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/conversion-therapy

    We created this using the latest guidelines from APA on how to cite a web page without an author (see here: apastyle.org/learn/faqs/web-page-no-author.aspx). Only the date may change in the future when we update the page.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Tory S.

    Tory S.

    June 1st, 2017 at 1:40 PM

    Info please

  • harry m

    harry m

    June 17th, 2017 at 11:59 AM

    charlotte f. and carly e.
    if you both have enough courage to write in openly for help to correct, what you see wrong in you ,then i can assure you that , you are 50 % healed
    because you both still have enough fight in you ,to look for ways to get out of this situation . I can just salute you both ,for standing up against ,wave after wave of thoughts in your mind ,which you not even wish your arch enemy have. Now , point of thought that you have in your mind of same sex attraction, take a example when you are going to party ,naturally you wanna be prettiest or handsome of all there , now as you are dressing up or setting your hair up.
    you select your dress or hair style by looking at some other person of your gender ,wearing that dress or having that hair style . and looking at him or her you think that if she or he is looking pretty or handsome in that , i should have that dress or hair style . Now , main point is that ,in order to dressing up for a party , in your mind you accept beauty of a person of your gender. Now , whether this type of attraction is similar to that we have for opposite gender.
    ABSOLUTELY NO, but if with some external medium ,to say media or newspaper , a seed of confusion is planted in your mind that both attraction of are same type and that natural attraction i talk about ,is actually same-sex attraction . What will be in you mind ,at first you rubbishes of that conflicting and bad thought in your mind ,but only superficially . As by that thought ,we feared the worst to come and then every single thought in your mind lead to
    just to that dreaded thought . you must thinking what do i mean by seed of confusion ,it can be any thing in a incident in your life or a thought , it is very important point as i seen a nat geo documentary ,in which a us army marine ,who served in korean war and have a beautiful wife and a kid ,change his sex, he said many times about a incident of ,when he was six seven year playing his sister’s doll and her mom stop him from doing and said this is girly thing.
    This was that person’s seed of confusion. but if you pay a closer look , what that kid does at that was not unnatural ,he was a kid at that time playing if a fully loaded was there in place of doll ,he would surely playing with it .
    so at last i wanna say , i am not an expert , what i write here is my personal understanding of that topic . and with that personal understanding i can assure you that stopping these damning thought is well with in your reach and you only you can heal yourselves .
    My best wishes and prayers will always with you and hope that you can take back what yours ,that is your happiness and confidence .
    please reply , any praise will be welcomed and any criticism will be most welcomed.
    THANK YOU.

  • Your Guardian Angel

    Your Guardian Angel

    September 30th, 2017 at 11:31 PM

    You are perfect.
    Just the way you are.
    Just as God created you.
    Remember that.
    I love you.
    Just the way you are.
    Just as God intended.
    Perfectly flawed just how you were meant to be.

  • Hug J

    Hug J

    April 11th, 2018 at 1:42 PM

    That goes against the classical Judeo-Christian thinking that states God made everyone male and female; no third or alternate genders. God allows people to be born flawed: genetic defects, congenital defects, etc, for His mysterious reasons, but He DOES allow for man to work to correct/cure genetic and other natural defects. So if someone develops same-sex attraction, that IS and imperfection that can lead to sinful homosexual activity. God does give some people heavier crosses than others (blindness, mental retardation, childhood leukemia and yes, also same sex attraction) but expects irregardless all to avoid sin, and not use their disability as an excuse to sin or embrace an immoral lifestyle. Hell awaits those who die refusing to obey God, so psychologists do no one any favors when they “affirm” them in their gay or other immoral orientation. They are instead helping them trade a short bit of “happiness” ( which is not really happiness at all but self-indulgence) in this world for eternal torment in the next.

  • Sasot

    Sasot

    October 14th, 2017 at 2:42 AM

    I’m confused most of the time. Reading your articles gives me hope sometimes.

  • Anon

    Anon

    June 30th, 2018 at 2:09 PM

    Reading some of the comments above just makes me sad. To anyone considering starting therapy just remember you can’t change who you are, only pretend you’re not gay. Deep down inside of you will always have gay feelings. Those feelings will eventually eat you alive if you keep repressing. The best thing to do is to accept yourself and step out of the closet when you feel ready and when it is safe for you to do so.
    You’re perfect they way you are don’t hate yourself <33333

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