Due to new books and films like Boy Erased (written by Arkansas native Garrard Conley) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, there has been a recent increase in the discussion around LGBTQ conversion therapy. Conversion therapy essentially tries to “de-gay” a person by changing their sexual orientation. In the past this has included “ex-gay” camps, electroconvulsive therapy, and administering shocks when aroused among other extreme measures. Today, most conversion therapy uses behavioral techniques much like cognitive behavioral therapy to attempt to change behavior or deny the expression of sexual feelings. In other words, it can look like regular therapy.
Most, if not all, mainstream medical and mental health associations agree that homosexuality (and any other sexual expression other than heterosexual) is not a mental health disorder. They also agree that conversion therapy and any attempt to change sexual orientation can do more harm than good, adding to anxiety and depression. There have been numerous studies supporting these claims along with many personal accounts by individuals who have tried to change their orientation.
Many LGBTQ individual have anxiety and depression related to their sexual orientation because of stigma and minority stress. We still have a long way to go in fully accepting non-heterosexual identities, therefore this can create stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in many people. This does not mean, however, that the symptoms come from an LGBTQ identity, but rather from society’s negative response to a LGBTQ identify. This is a massive difference. It is always important to reiterate that being LGBTQ is NOT a disorder! Conversion therapy only adds to this stigma, further creating minority stress by telling LGBTQ individuals that something is wrong with them, when in reality something is wrong with society.
It can get a little more complicated, however, because this minority stress and stigma can cause many LGBTQ people to feel like their life would be better if they were straight. Therefore, some LGBTQ individuals might think that conversion therapy is best for them. As a therapist I strongly encourage people to identify and live by their values. I cannot tell people what to do and how to live their lives, only help them uncover and explore what they really want. If people truly want conversion therapy it is not my place to stop them. However, I can inform them of the risks and potential damage they may do to themselves, backed by research. I will also not refer people to conversion therapists (honestly, I don’t know any).
Young LGBTQ individuals are particularly susceptible to self-hatred. Youth is a vulnerable time and many gay young people want to “fit in” with the norm. This combined with minor status (younger than 18) can leave many LGBTQ adolescents in a risky situation. Parents may convince or force them to attend conversion therapy and there is little they can do about it. Some states and cities have banned conversion therapy for minors but most have not (including Arkansas). The “It Gets Better” campaign and the Trevor Project are great resources for young LGBTQ people to provide support and hope. I have discussed with adult clients and friends many times about how hard it was to be gay at a young age and how now, as adults, we would change nothing about ourselves. It truly does get better! So overall conversion therapy is bad news and remember you always have the right to ask your therapist about their views on LGBTQ identities and if anything seems off you also have the right to stop treatment and see someone else.
Here are some resources and further reading about conversion therapy: