The Fight to End Conversion Therapy in the United States
For decades, the world of conversion therapy has been hidden from view and hushed in church circles all around the world (or praised, depending on your congregation or where you live). But, now- more than ever- the world of this abuse and torment is coming to light.
The Human Rights Campaign defines conversion therapy as a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Conversion therapy is often called reparative therapy, sexuality counseling, or ex-gay ministry. No matter the name, all programs require participants to engage in “exercises” that may include aversive conditioning (such as electric shock or food deprivation), hypnosis, or masturbation reconditioning. These techniques adhere to no real ethical standards and prove to have lasting negative consequences on participants’ physical and mental health.
In an issue brief published by the American Medical Association found that 77% of conversion therapy participants experienced lasting long term damage such as depression, anxiety, internalized- homophobia, or sexual dysfunction. In a report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, people who undergo conversion therapy are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide. Because of the lack of ethics and proven suicidal impact, conversion therapy is strongly opposed by many medical associations, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
According to research conducted by the Trevor Project, conversion therapy is still legal in 30 states across the U.S., and approximately 700,000 people have endured the abuse. An estimated 80,000 LGBTQ+ people under the age of 18 will participate in conversion therapy (or some form of it) in the next few years. Because many are under the age of consent, they may not have any real say in their coerced or even forced participation in these programs.
Human rights violations come in many forms. The U.S. continuously calls on other countries to repair the damage they have caused by abusing their citizens. But the United States- on the federal level- has not done enough to repair the damage caused by conversion therapy. Nor have we outlawed this version of human rights violations veiled with religious ambiguity. Instead, the government has marked this epidemic as a religious issue, making the subject a lot easier to swallow in the court of public opinion. As a result, many Americans are not aware of this great harm, and if they are, they know very little about it.
It would seem as though in this new wave of protest, accountability, and the “Me-Too” movement, the banning of conversion therapy wouldn’t need a second thought. The truth is that an all-out ban at the federal level (or even at most state levels) will take time.
Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina still have no form of protection for its citizens against conversion therapy. It’s important to point out that most of these states are in the deep south, known for their sincerely held religious beliefs and practices within the bible belt. Unfortunately, in states with no protections, conversion therapy is most likely to be the most prevalent due to the firmly held view that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is a sin that can ultimately be “fixed.”
Luckily, there is hope. To date, 20 states have banned conversion therapy or forms of it, and there is still an ongoing national outcry against these tactics. Many states have signed legislation that provides certain protections for LGBTQ+ folks who are in or may experience conversion therapy.
In 2021 alone, 19 states have introduced legislation in their statehouses to protect people from the harms of conversion therapy. Just last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz signed an executive order restricting gay conversion therapy for youth. The fight is also taking place at the local level. This week, a bill was introduced to the Charleston, West Virginia City Council, which would ban any form of conversion therapy. However, none of these bills have been signed into law within those 19 states and the City of Charleston.
These efforts at the local and state levels of government are all steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to combat these human rights violations. Despite the slow progress, those in the LGBTQ+ community are here to stay, and as long as we are breathing, we will continue to speak out openly against these travesties. There is power in protest, in having hope, and never giving up. We are here, we are queer, and we are going to keep living our authentic lives.
If you or someone you know is seeking help, you can contact The Trevor Project Crisis Services at 1-866-488-7386.