Why It’s Time to Address the Trauma of Conversion Therapy

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Conversion therapy is a shame-based practice that attempts to change the very core of an individual’s identity. Yet, in the United States, it is still legal for licensed health care providers to practice conversion therapy in 36 states. Fortunately, a growing number of states and the United Kingdom have begun to recognize the danger of conversion therapy and are outlawing the practice. The attention these bans are receiving presents a critical opportunity to create further awareness of the long-term trauma from conversion therapy, and the importance of passing laws to protect LGBTQ+ youth from this damaging practice.

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is a “treatment grounded in the belief that being LGBT is abnormal … [and is] intended to change the sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression of LGBT people.” Almost 700,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have been subjected to this practice and an estimated 77,000 people ages 13 to 17 will receive conversion therapy before they turn 18.

Two new films, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, are drawing attention to how traumatic conversion therapy programs are, and what occurs in some conversion camps:

  • Participants are taught that everyone is born straight. Film consultant Mathew Shurka said “his therapist explained that ‘everyone is born heterosexual’ and anyone who isn’t is reacting to childhood traumas.”
  • A “cannibal theory” concept is sometimes introduced, contending “if you’re attracted to someone (of the same sex), you’re not actually in love with them—you just want to be them.”
  • Participants are forced to re-enact traumatic experiences that “made” them gay. 
  • “Deviant” behavior, which includes anything deemed unacceptable by program leaders, is chastised.

Dr. Joy Whitman, a core faculty member with the online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, explains the damage conversion therapy creates. “It’s trying to change the essence of the person,” she says. “We know that sexual orientation can be fluid. But it’s the coercion to change that is the harmful nature of it. The basic communication is that there is something wrong with you if you are same-sex attracted.”

Why does this damaging practice persist?

Despite the growing evidence that conversion therapy is harmful, it persists into the 21st century. Researcher and author J. Seth Anderson notes that historically, heterosexuality has been linked to the rights of being an American citizen. “Mid-20th-century conversion therapy advocates insisted that a person could in fact modify his or her sexual orientation, which offered a justification for the state to extend benefits to heterosexuals while denying them to so-called sexual deviants,” Anderson writes.

Describing the archaic and painful practices people have endured in conversion therapy, he says the motivation was reward. Individuals were given the message that if they change to fit the “norms” of a heterosexual society, they will be rewarded.

Additionally, in some communities a non-heterosexual orientations are still viewed as a mental illness. According to Dr. Joy Whitman in a statement by the American Counseling Association, “Within various religious and cultural communities, same-sex attractions and behaviors are still viewed as pathological. Yet the professional communities of counseling and psychology no longer diagnose a client who has attractions to people of the same sex as mentally disordered.”

The value of increased awareness

Films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased are critical to creating heightened awareness. When the trauma caused by conversion therapy is clear, perhaps people can learn to embrace each other with love and acceptance instead of judgment and fear. 

Such increased awareness also leads to legal change. In the U.S., three more states—Maryland, New Hampshire and Hawaii—recently banned conversion therapy, a decision supported by the American Counseling Association (ACA). Such legislation, ACA Chief Executive Officer Richard Yep noted, “will prevent some of our most vulnerable populations—children and youth—from being subjected to a very painful and damaging experience. …The mental health community has spoken in a clear voice that this practice should not be condoned.”

Finding healing in the aftermath

For individuals who have been forced into conversion therapy, the healing process can be complicated. According to Dr. Whitman, who is a licensed professional counselor with expertise on LGBTQ issues, the fact that conversion therapy has often been disguised under different names and provided by a licensed counselor can make it difficult for clients to trust another counseling professional. “I have to remember that the very profession that I represent has betrayed them. They tried to get help from people that they thought were healers, so I’m very mindful that I will have to work hard to let them know that our work together will be supportive and that I want to understand the conflicts that they have,” she says. “My role with them is not to try to convince them to be anything, but to help them uncover and discover who they are.”

She said family members may benefit from counseling, too. “Families have their own dreams, expectations, and hopes for their family members and their children,” Dr. Whitman says. “You want to help them grieve the loss of the child that they thought they had and, instead, help them see the child that they do have.”

For those who have undergone conversion therapy, finding the right counselor to help with the healing process is essential. Instead of trying to persuade a client to be anything, counselors should help individuals discover who they are by:

  • Building trust with a supporting, accepting environment.
  • Respecting how their religious, cultural and spiritual backgrounds serve them.
  • Normalizing what it means to be attracted to the same sex.
  • Debunking misconceptions and myths about sexual orientation or identity.
  • Counseling them through grief and loss.
  • Exploring their dreams and goals.
  • Helping them recognize their spiritual and sexual identities can exist together.  

Dr. Whitman highlights the need for counselors to stand in the gap to educate and advocate: “There are some people who will never change their thinking and so for us our work is to go to those on the fence and to help them see the harm of trying to change somebody’s fundamental essence and to train them in affirmative practices.”

Colleen O’Day is a digital marketing manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.