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Imagine being forced to ingest drugs that induce nausea to rewire your brain. Consider being made to vomit repeatedly to pay for your preferences that others deem sinful. Think of the pain of being shocked with electrical currents while being shown images repeatedly for hours each day to recondition your mind in order to change who you are.
How would you react to being dropped off with strangers who verbally, physically, and emotionally abuse you in an attempt to revert you back to something, or someone, you never were? This type of abuse is a reality for thousands of people who have suffered through conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is the effort to change the sexual orientation of homosexual individuals based on the idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can be cured. The idea is that various forms of psychological—and sometimes physical—conditioning can revert someone back to a heterosexual lifestyle. The efforts made to force conversion therapy upon LGBTQ individuals are often rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs. Reparative therapy, ex-gay therapy, and/or psychological abuse are the primary tools used to carry out the process.
There are hundreds of thousands of stories from individuals who have survived conversion therapy. In fact, The Williams Institute of UCLA found that 698,000 LGBTQ adults in the US between 18-59 had some form of conversion therapy, including 350,000 as adolescents. Additionally, the report states that 20,000 adolescents will be subjected to conversion therapy before they turn 18.
Conversion therapy techniques have evolved over the years and involve a range of approaches, including talk therapy, prayer, re-education, hypnosis, and aversion therapy. In some cases, LGBTQ individuals have been forced to endure unconscionable forms of physical abuse in order to reverse their sexual orientation or gender identity, such as electroshock therapy and castration.
Electroconvulsive shock therapy, or electroshock therapy, involves stimulating the brain with an electric current for a brief period of time. This form of therapy is often used for individuals with severe mental illnesses, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In the past, however, it was commonly used on LGBTQ individuals as a form of conversion therapy.
In most instances, individuals would receive an electric shock to their temples in order to forget they were gay, or in other words, reboot the brain. In some cases, the patients would receive electric shocks to their genitals while viewing certain stimuli, such as same-sex images, to create an aversive response.
In the most extreme cases, conversion therapy techniques would include lobotomies or castration, either through medication or medical procedures. These techniques were designed to strip individuals of their ability to desire or enjoy sex, as well as have children, and associate homosexuality with disgust and discomfort.
Today, conversion therapy techniques are generally more psychological in nature; however, aversion therapy techniques are still used. According to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association, aversion treatment techniques include inducing nausea and vomiting, shaming, conducting systematic desensitization, and facilitating orgasmic reconditioning. Common nonaversive treatments include hypnosis, re-education, and physical and social reinforcement.
Regardless of techniques, conversion therapy has profound effects on the mental health of the individuals subjected to it. In many cases, conversion therapy leads to shame, self-hatred, drug abuse, depression, and suicidality, and the health risks are even greater for adolescents who undergo conversion therapy. Today, the nation’s leading medical and mental health associations have rejected conversion therapy as an ineffective and dangerous practice.
The devastating effects of conversion therapy are perhaps best understood through the stories of those who have experienced it first hand. In one such case, a young woman named Alex Cooper appeared on Stay Tuned, NBC’s news source for Snapchat.
She shared her experience with conversion therapy, which occurred after she came out to her parents as a lesbian at the age of 15. Under the pretense of visiting her grandparents, her parents instead took her to a family she didn’t know—signing over their parental rights and guardianship—so the family could help rid her of her attraction to girls.
She was forced to wear a backpack full of heavy rocks to allow her to experience the weight and burden of her sins. She was forced to stare at the wall for hours that sometimes stretched almost the entire day to allow her to think about her choices.
The family who hosted her made every effort to break her of her “sins.” Ultimately, Alex attempted suicide to break free of the abuse, assuming that she would either die or be taken to the hospital. Neither occurred, and Alex endured nearly a year in her conversion therapy prison before escaping.
Sam’s experience with conversion therapy began after innocently telling his father he had feelings for his friend Dale. At first, his father beat him over and over again in an attempt to cure him. When that did not work, his parents sent him to conversion therapy.
At conversion therapy, Sam endured psychological abuse in an attempt to scare him and make him ashamed of being gay. Soon, he moved on to “physical therapy,” which was a euphemism for physical abuse. He was subjected to horrendous abuse that included sticking needles in his fingers and electrocution.
Lucas Greenfield is another survivor. He was imprisoned at a religious camp in Alabama designed to convert gay children under the leadership of individuals who mentally and physically abused them, including beating them with belts. To the camp leaders, being gay was the greatest sin anyone could commit.
The children who attended the camp lived in a constant state of fear until they were finally freed. The abuses were eventually uncovered, but no actions have been taken against the camp or staff who abused the children. Alabama’s Attorney General at the time, Luther Strange, purportedly stated that he did not want to take on the issue for fear of upsetting the churches and constituents in Alabama.
Currently, there are no nationwide laws regulating or banning forced conversion therapy. Members of Congress are trying to ban conversion therapy, but Democratic lawmakers have not been successful in gaining support for the bills they have introduced. However, conversion therapy has been regulated at the state level; so far, thirteen states have some laws banning conversion therapy for minors.
Various groups, such as The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), work to stop both licensed and non-licensed conversion therapy. Groups like NCLR also work toward allowing the stories of individuals who have survived conversion therapy to be heard and continue to help bring changes through legislation, policy, and litigation.
NCLR has made progress by working with conversion therapy survivors to pass a law in California that bars therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of adult patients. Alternatively, some feel that taking away the ability for individuals to get psychological help with questions about sexuality, gender identity, etc., is a terrible move. Many agree that conversion therapy is a harsh process to force upon someone, but what if the individual asks for it themselves? Those who oppose the bill feel that the right for a competent adult to discuss what they please with a therapist is an inherent right, not something that should be taken away by law.
However, the issue of conversion therapy laws for consenting adults is different than allowing parents to force their children to be subjected to conversion therapy. When it comes to minors, the Republican platform of 2016 explains: “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.” The Party still holds on to the belief that parents should have the right to choose any medical or psychological treatment for their minor children that they see fit.
Some feel that conversion therapy is necessary because homosexuality and gender identity changes are sinful and against the will of their god. Many are unable to see the cruelty due to their personal and religious beliefs that they must convert these homosexuals and transgender individuals to a godly life.
Although the views and opinions concerning conversion therapy differ across the country, the fact remains that in 1973 the American Psychological Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder. Therefore, these types of therapeutic treatments are not curing an ailment, they are attempting to break down core pieces of individuals to satisfy their personal and religious beliefs.
Organizations like NCLR and MAP, as well as survivors of conversion therapy, are dedicating themselves to eliminating the option for conversion therapy across the nation. Even if you have not experienced conversion therapy yourself, and even if you don’t know anyone who has, these types of organizations can always use volunteers who care about the livelihood of innocent people who simply want to live their lives and experience the happiness that any other individual desires. If you would like to know what you can do to help the efforts to ban conversion therapy in your state or surrounding states, please visit the National Center for Lesbian Rights or the website for the Movement Advancement Project for more information.
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