The Ethics of Conversion Therapy in Contrast to the Ethics of Deprogramming

An Introduction to the Issues

“My death needs to mean something,” wrote seventeen-year-old Leelah, born Joshua, Alcorn in her suicide note, posted to her Tumblr account, later taken down by police at the request of her parents. “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please,” signing the note, Leelah Josh Alcorn. Leelah’s parents, extremely conservative Christians, told her that “[being transgender] was a phase, that [she] would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that [she was] wrong.” They took her to therapists, but only to Christian therapists, who were exceedingly biased in their views, telling Leelah she was “selfish and wrong and that [she] should look to God for help.” Leelah killed herself shortly after.

Unfortunately, Leelah’s case is not a unique or rare one. Her death is part of a larger epidemic in our country regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youth. Conversion therapy – also known as reparative or ex-gay therapy – essentially seeks to “pray away the gay,” or, put more scientifically, is a psychological treatment that is designed to change someone’s sexual orientation, whether it be gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc., to straight. These treatment centers operate through prayer or religious efforts to force heterosexuality upon someone. Not only is it not effective, conversion therapy can cause much harm, especially to minors who are already so vulnerable. As of 2016, only five states – Vermont, California, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oregon – and the District of Columbia, along with several cities, have banned the use of conversion therapy on minors in regards to sexual orientation. Of these states, only Vermont has also banned the use of conversion therapy on minors in regards to gender identity. This doesn’t stop parents, though, from sending their LGBTQ+ children outside of state to be “converted.” According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ youth who have been rejected by their families are eight times more likely to commit suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression than LGBTQ+ youth who feel accepted by their families regarding their queer identities.

This topic has become even more relevant with a vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who supports the practice of electroshock conversion therapy. In 2000, when running for Congress, Pence “wrote on his website in a section on LGBT issues that money from a program to help those with HIV/AIDS should go to organizations ‘which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.’” Pence also disapproves of same-sex marriage, and he does not believe that minority rights should be extended to the LGBT community. This is very dangerous for the LGBTQ+ community, and I am afraid that his views will normalize the use of conversion therapy in the United States.

In this paper, I will be exploring the history and practice of conversion therapy, as well as the ethics and motivation behind it. Many people think that the fight for LGBT rights is over, since the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal, but we are nowhere near close. While five states – By using cult deprogramming as an analogy, I will aim to answer the questions: where do we draw the line with parents’ involvement in their children’s lives? At what point does parents’ interference become harmful to their children? How can we determine when it is appropriate for them to intervene?

A Brief History of Conversion Therapy

Almost every Psychology student learns that most everything can be traced back to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis who practiced in the late 1800s, early 1900s. During Freud’s time, the study of homosexuality was still fairly new. At the beginning of his career, Freud was “influenced about homosexuality by another researcher who believed that homosexuals could be changed to heterosexuals by simply replacing the testicles of a straight man and putting those testicles into a gay man.” Clearly, from what we know today, this surgical operation would pose many ethical challenges and health risks. In the 1800s, though, this researcher started a practice doing exactly that: replacing a gay man’s testicles with those of a straight man. However, since there were not many willing straight male participants, and since sanitation was not the best, resulting in several lives lost due to infection, after a while, the practice was shut down.

In the 1950s and 1960s, some therapists started the practice of aversion therapy with male homosexual clients, which “typically involved showing patients pictures of naked men while giving them electric shocks or drugs to make them vomit, and, once they could no longer bear it, showing them pictures of naked women or sending them out on a ‘date’ with a young nurse.” I would not call this the beginning of conversion therapy, though, simply because it did not become a popularized practice until about a decade later.

Fast forward to 1968, the year when the American Psychological Association (APA) officially classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) II. With this addition, homosexuality was no longer just considered a sin by the Church, but now it was also considered a disorder by a credible association. The implication of this change was that being homosexual was both morally/ethically wrong and psychologically wrong. But in 1973, the APA conducted a vote amongst its members concerning “whether they believed homosexuality to be a mental disorder.” The results of the vote were telling. Just five years after it was classified as a mental disorder, 5,854 psychiatrists “voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM, [compared to] 3,810 to retain it.” Even though there was a decisive answer, the APA chose to compromise. They followed through with removing homosexuality from the DSM, but they made the determination to replace it with “‘sexual orientation disturbance,’ for people ‘in conflict with’ their sexual orientation.” Therefore, it was not until 1987, only thirty years ago, that all references to homosexuality or sexual orientation were completely abolished from the DSM. While today most professionals practice gay affirmative psychotherapy, “which encourages gay people to accept their sexual orientation,” there are still more ‘underground’ efforts to change a gay individual’s sexuality that are not getting the attention they deserve.

I mention the APA’s 1973 decision because, immediately afterward, predominantly religious organizations stepped forward and fought back, saying, “No, homosexuality is still a problem, and it still needs to be fixed. Come to us, and we will help you get away from this disorder.” So, in that same year, Love in Action, now called Restoration Path, an ex-gay Christian ministry, opened their doors for business. A few years later, in 1976, Exodus International, “a large umbrella organization [comprised of many] practitioners trying to help connect parents to a way to help their child.”

And just like that, the formation of these camps all over the country became a popularized and normalized method for parents and professionals to work together to physically and psychologically torture LGBT youth. It should be noted that, fairly recently, in July 2013, Exodus International shut down, and in part, has been changed over to the Restored Hope Network, a “coalition of ministries serving those who desire to overcome sinful relational and sexual issues in their lives and those impacted by such behavior, particularly homosexuality.” However, since Exodus International was an umbrella organization, its “baby organizations” are still thriving in their existence.

What is Wrong with Being Gay?

Before we delve into the topic, it is important to understand the motives behind sending one’s child to conversion therapy, which, ultimately, have to do with the false belief that being gay is somehow “wrong.” There are two main arguments regarding the issue in being a member of the LGBTQ+ community – one rooted in faith, and the other in evolution.

First, let’s break down the faith argument.

Oftentimes, depending, of course, on the family, youth who grow up in very religious households are exposed to varying homophobic belief systems and expectations. Take, for instance, the Missionary Baptist Church, a “fundamentalist church that believes in the literal truth of the Bible.” This would mean that, in Leviticus 18:22, when it says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” thou better not lie with mankind. According to not only the Baptist Church, but also to other forms of Christianity, although sinfulness ranges in its severity, all sins are equal, pertaining to eternal damnation and salvation, in the eyes of God. With that being said, homosexuality is considered, in extreme, orthodox forms of religion, to be a sin. So, in other words, being and identifying as a homosexual is “no better and no worse than any other sinner in this world… [because] God sees all sin in the same light.” Homosexuality is seen to be just as sinful as murder, pedophilia, robbery, rape. There is no difference in the morals behind these actions, since all of them, including homosexuality, are choices, and one can simply choose not to act on these urges.

Similarly, in the Mormon faith, to act on ‘homosexual urges’ is considered a sin. In order to get to the “highest levels of heaven,” which is desirable for all, a man and a woman must get married in a Mormon temple. It is highly expected of the couple to stay married – not to get a divorce or to remarry when widowed. Outlined in one of the many Mormon doctrines, this is called an eternal, or celestial, marriage, meaning that it “is heavenly in nature [and] divine in its origin and potential.” Once married, if the couple decides to have children, they and their children will live together for eternity, both on Earth and in heaven, never to be separated. At first glance, this view of “families being together forever” seems gratifying. However, since homosexuality is sinful in the Mormon religion, and same-sex couples are forbidden from getting married in the temple, those who engage in homosexual activities – those who ‘choose’ to be gay – will not join their families in heaven. Instead, these individuals are sent to hell, sometimes referred to as “outer darkness” in Mormon scriptures. The basic argument against homosexuality in Mormonism is a guilt trip: do you really want your family to have to live without you for the rest of time? Is that not selfish of you? Can you not restrict yourself from your homosexual urges so that your family will be happy and complete in heaven?

With the legalization of same-sex marriage in California, followed by all fifty states, the Mormon church became very concerned with how this would affect their practice of eternal marriage. They prescribed themselves the job of protecting the “traditional” family, as they believed that “legalizing gay marriage would destroy the family and go against God’s plan, that families – straight families – were meant to be forever, and that if gay people were allowed to get married, they [the government] could sue and shut down the Mormon temples where eternal marriages took place.” As with more extreme forms of Christianity, homosexuality is viewed as “wrong,” “disgusting,” and “unnatural,” and it is a universal belief that God did not create anybody to be gay. Those who identify as gay, or, more generally, as part of the LGBTQ+ community, are seen as just confused straight people making poor life choices. Specific to Mormonism, homosexuality is not in the “plan of salvation,” thus making it a heavy burden to bear. It is in God’s plan for everyone to get married in the temple and have children, and if one fails to do so, he or she is automatically committing a sin.

There are several issues with the faith argument. First of all, if God hated gay people as much as these religions say he does, then why do gay people exist? Why do 2.2 percent to 4.0 percent of all adults (eighteen and older) in the United States identify as LGBT? Although the percentages reveal that the LGBT community is a clear minority in our country, they add up to between 5.2 and 9.5 million adults. Are these 5.2 to 9.5 million people lying or confused about their identities? Assuming that these people are being one hundred percent truthful, why would God create them if he felt such a strong disgust toward them? If Jesus supposedly loves the sinners (which, in different ways, we all are) but hates the sin, can this even be applied to gay people who feel that their sexualities are so closely linked to their senses of self?

Additionally, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ popular song, Same Love, featuring Mary Lambert, quickly became an anthem for the queer community, partly because it mocks the absurdity of using religion as an excuse to discriminate against gay people. In it, he sings, “And ‘God loves all his children’ is somehow forgotten / But we paraphrase a book / Written thirty-five hundred years ago.” This lyric brings up the irony of the Bible. The Bible preaches that “God loves all his children,” but it seems that there is a hidden qualifier in there – “God loves all his children, except if they are gay,” or, “only if they are straight.” But, with this added qualifier, the statement is no longer accurate, for it would mean that God only loves some of his children. To address the second part of the lyric, Macklemore is saying that we selectively choose certain passages of the Bible to accommodate and fit our current belief systems. Like, for instance, sure, you can decide to reference Leviticus 18:22, but you cannot ignore other passages, such as Leviticus 19:28, which forbids tattoos, or Mark 10:11-12, which forbids remarrying after divorce, or Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which forbids sex before marriage. Chances are, many people have committed what the Bible considers to be sins, so why do we single out homosexuality? The Bible is outdated, and following what it says word-for-word is just not applicable to our lives centuries later, and understandably so. Perhaps it is due time for a new scripture to follow.

It is also interesting to consider the fact that there are queer people of faith – I will specifically comment on Christianity – and it is not like they use their own Bible; they use the same scriptures as extreme, orthodox Christians like the missionary Baptists. Presbyterian Christians are a good example of accepting the LGBTQ+ community while still following the Bible’s words. They think that to “exclude them [LGBTQ+ people] or to deny them any of the privileges we heterosexuals enjoy would be to build the very barriers that the Lord Jesus removed.” The Presbyterian Church believes in “openness to all people” and the “inclusion of all people in God’s family.” If Presbyterians are able to be respectful to LGBTQ+ people and still remain faithful to scripture, then it is possible for other religious communities to do the same. It is not contradictory.

Clearly, there are many gaps in the faith argument, which is why, I believe, the evolution argument was formed.

To satisfy the more scientifically-oriented person, rather than the religiously-oriented one, anti-gay leaders created what I will refer to as the evolution argument to prove that homosexuality was, indeed, wrong. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the main forerunners of modern-day reparative therapy, believes that humankind is designed to be heterosexual. Much like the religious argument, Nicolosi, also the founder and former president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), feels that being gay is not healthy or natural, and pretending that it is is not beneficial to anyone. For this reason, he says that there is no such thing as a “gay child” or a “gay teen,” because confusion about sexuality – i.e. believing that you are anything but straight – is “primarily a psychological condition [that], to some extent, can be modified.” As you may have gathered from this information, Nicolosi does not approve of the APA’s removal of homosexuality from the DSM, for he believes that, in doing so, they are helping to normalize the “gay lifestyle,” instead of treating it for what it is: a “developmental disorder.”

To say that we were all “designed to be heterosexual” is essentially speaking to the ‘birds and the bees,’ in that penis is meant to go in vagina, and there is no other alternative. This appeals a bit to Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest; as human beings, we are “competing” with each other so that our genes survive for as long as possible in the gene pool. Of course, this hunger for competition is purely unconscious and stems from our evolution, going all the way back to the very first cell. Humans want their legacies to live on, and in order to do so, they must procreate. Because each of us knows that our lives on Earth are temporary, and that we are, in fact, mortal beings, we all have an innate, inborn desire to reproduce so that our genes will be alive in our children. And hopefully, since our children will have this same innate desire, they, too, will have children of their own, and our genes will continue to thrive in future generations, even after we have long passed. And the only natural way to reproduce is – you guessed it – for a man and a woman to have intercourse. By nature, two women having sex will not result in a baby, and neither will two men having sex. This, therefore, ascertains that same-sex desire, determined by evolution and our natural instincts, is not, intrinsically, possible.

Here, I think it is important to note that this “evolution argument” is also deeply threaded with religious undertones. Certainly, since Nicolosi has close ties with religious groups and communities, his views and argument pertaining to our biology are undoubtedly skewed. Being the founder and once president of NARTH, he is in a position of extreme bias. To say that “none of us would be around if God had intended it to be man with man” has some legitimacy to it – a biological male and a biological female must be together to procreate – but this argument is highly influenced by religion. It is the same thing as saying, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” which is completely irrelevant. The truth of the matter is, almost all animals, not only humans, exhibit some level of homosexual behavior. If homosexuality were “unnatural,” we would most likely not be seeing it in other species.

Possibly a larger counterargument would have to do with the idea that we have not yet found a “gay gene” responsible for homosexuality in humans. To this, I would like to say that lack of evidence on one side does not count as support for the other side. In this case, currently having a lack of evidence for a “gay gene” does not provide support for homosexuality being a choice. Researchers have been working for the last two decades to see if there is a biological origin of homosexuality. Looking at genes is a long, complicated process, and scientists are not even close to an answer yet, but they definitely not ruling out the possibility that homosexuality is genetic. There are several working theories, including “the genes for homosexuality do other things, too” – like making a straight man more attractive to women.

The simplest answer to this question is that we do not yet know how biology affects sexuality. And until we do, neither side can claim victory over the other.

Rules Implemented and Methods Used in Conversion Therapy

Since all conversion therapy centers have their own distinct rules and use their own distinct methods, I believe this section will be most impactful if explored through the stories of three individuals, or survivors of this practice, all of whom experienced and received very different forms of “treatment.”

I will start with Garrard Conley. Garrard was born into a family that devoted their lives to the missionary Baptist Church, so naturally, he, from a young age, became very involved in the religion as well. Not only were he and his family dedicated to the Church, but when he was sixteen, his father decided to become a Baptist pastor, which is a very long process. During this time, Garrard entered his first year of college, and things quickly began to domino downhill for him. After he was raped by another male student, his rapist called Garrard’s parents and told them that Garrard was gay. His mother came to pick him up from school immediately, and he had a choice to make: either attend a church-supported conversion therapy program, or risk losing the people he loved most. So, after his current church pastor handed him an ex-gay therapy brochure, Garrard started filling out his application for Love in Action. Although no longer a minor, Garrard knew that: a) his parents would stop funding his education and b) he would lose his relationship with his family if he did not follow through with their wishes for him to be “converted.” Therefore, at nineteen, Garrard got accepted into the Love in Action program, the “oldest and largest ex-gay therapy facility in the country.”

Love in Action turned out to be very strict and intense. Its leaders essentially created a 12-step program for its patients, emulating the 12-step program for alcoholics, that equated the “sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality to addictive behavior such as alcoholism or gambling.” In fact, when Garrard joined the group on the first day, he was surprised to discover it was “composed of people dealing [with] anything from homosexuality, bestiality, pedophilia, and any other sort of infidelity.” Love in Action described homosexuality as a “false personality,” and that, if you were not careful, you could “end up messing around with someone’s dog if [you] didn’t cure [yourself].” They contributed to and fed into the misconception that some had when fighting against marriage equality: if we allow you to get married to a person of the same gender, then what is next? People will try to marry their dogs, they will try to marry inanimate objects, they will try to marry more than one person. Likening homosexuality to bestiality is not only extremely inaccurate, but also very harmful to vulnerable, susceptible youth.

Similarly, the staff at Love in Action made each patient complete a genogram, a family tree that “shows hereditary patterns and sinful behaviors in [his or her family].” Examples of these sins were: alcoholism, promiscuous behavior, homosexuality, drug addiction, gambling, mental illness, abortion, gang involvement, pornography, and adultery. The more family members in your tree who engaged in sinful behavior, the more likely it was that their sinfulness was passed down to you in the form of homosexuality. This, of course, contradicts anti-gay activists’ claim that people are not born gay; it is a choice. If being gay is supposedly not genetic, then why is sinfulness, according to them, believed to be? That would, in turn, mean that homosexuality is heritable, even if indirectly. Logically, it follows that, if sinfulness is passed down through generations, and homosexuality is a sin, then homosexuality is also passed down through generations.

At the beginning of his stay, Garrard was forced to hand in his phone and empty his pockets for counselors who then had to look through all of his photos, messages, and items for false images: “any belongings, appearances, clothing, actions, or humor that might connect [one] to an inappropriate past.” Examples of false image behaviors included “hypermasculinity, seductive clothing, mannish/boyish attire (on women), excessive jewelry (on men), and ‘campy’ or gay/lesbian behavior and talk.” These rules required patients to act in a “gender-affirming” (of the sex they were “assigned” at birth) way. Since Garrard was staying in a hotel for the nights with his mother during the initial two weeks, he was checked for false images when he came back each morning.

Nicolosi and Love in Action shared many of the same views on gender and its connection to one’s sexual orientation, and these mutual beliefs perpetuated gender stereotypes. Nicolosi believes that boys who are “unaggressive,” “unathletic,” “friends with mostly girls,” “passive,” and “fearful of other boys” grow up to ‘become’ homosexuals. He views masculinity in prepubescent and adolescent boys to be “an achievement,” and he thinks that the “sexually confused teenager needs to recognize the importance of growing fully into his own gender.” At Love in Action, men had to attend talks on masculinity, and women had to attend talks on femininity. Garrard and other male patients were told, “It’s important to get in touch with this part of yourself. This masculine part that’s been missing for so long,” before being obligated to watch a documentary on sports to help them “get in touch with [their] masculine sides.” To both Nicolosi and Love in Action, masculine meant straight. If the men in the program became masculine, then they were assured that the rest would fall into place.

During his time at Love in Action, Garrard learned that he would not be allowed to read “secular literature,” and that he would only be allowed to read work by “fundamentalist Christian authors,” the only books that tended to be approved by staff. Additionally, patients were obligated to complete a Moral Inventory, also stolen from Alcoholics Anonymous, each night, which consisted of thinking of an example of sinful behavior in your past, writing it down in great detail, and sharing it with the group the next day. The ultimate goal of the exercise was to put faith in God that you could be absolved of your sins.

Alex Cooper, at age fifteen, found herself in a similar, but very different, predicament. Living in California, her family was Mormon and deeply religious, so when she told her parents she liked girls, it did not go over well. Her mom came into her room, threw a bag at her, and told her to get out of the house. Alex spent a week at her friend’s house before her parents picked her up, told her they were not yet ready to live with her again, and, instead, decided to drive her to live with her “grandparents” in Utah. When they arrived, she was surprised to find out that she would not be staying with her grandparents, but instead with another Mormon family she did not know. The parents of the household, Tiana and Johnny Siale, promised her parents that they could convert their child with the same efficacy as a treatment center, but for much less money.

Once both her parents and grandparents left, Tiana began to go through Alex’s suitcase. She separated Alex’s clothing and other items into the categories of “okay” and “immodest”/”inappropriate.” During her time at the Siales, Alex would not be allowed to wear makeup, use a blow dryer, or wear her “immodest” clothing, which consisted of miniskirts, short shorts, and tank tops. Tiana decided to take all of her clothing away, and threw her a trash bag full of “long skirts and oversized T-shirts emblazoned with the names of Utah vacation spots and church camps.” With Johnny closely watching her, Alex was required to change out of her current clothing into one of the long skirts and oversized T-shirts. When she asked for some privacy, he refused.

From the very beginning, Alex was told that she could be with the Siales “for three months or three years, it [was] up to [her],” meaning, “Follow everything we tell you, and you will get out of here sooner.” Unfortunately for Alex, Tiana and Johnny knew everyone in town. They knew the police, the schools, the courts. Johnny told her, “They all know us and trust us. They know we take in troubled kids. It’s your word against ours.” She would be allowed to talk to her parents once a week, if she behaved, but she would not be able to see her grandparents for a while. Since her grandparents and the Siales attended the same church, Alex would see them there, but her grandparents were instructed to avoid talking to her. The Siales enrolled her in the public high school, but she would be doing all of her schoolwork at their house.

Each day at the Siales consisted of prayer, scripture study, homeschooling, group meetings, and chores. Alex had to get Tiana and Johnny’s kids ready for school, cook all of the meals, and clean up after everyone. Whenever she misbehaved, Johnny would beat her up, most often punching her directly in the gut. One day, Tiana came in holding a backpack and a pile of big rocks. Putting the rocks in the backpack, Tiana said to Alex, “This represents the physical burden of being gay. This is what your mind and emotions are putting you through because of the choices you have made. You are going to wear this every day so you can feel the burden. You ignore your emotions. This will help you feel them.” From the time she woke up to the time she went to sleep, Alex was required to wear the heavy backpack of rocks, which left marks and bruises on her shoulder blades, damaging them. Whenever Alex refused to give Johnny information about her girlfriend, like her last name, where she lives, and her age, Johnny ordered one of the boys staying there to get another rock to put in her backpack. Eventually, this culminated into forcing her to stand facing the wall all day, from breakfast until bedtime. She was allowed only three bathroom breaks, and could sit down for lunch and dinner. While at the wall, sometimes Johnny would call out, “Look at that dyke. You can’t march away from this, you dyke. You are at a dead end.” After she could not take it any longer, Alex gave in and gave Tiana and Johnny her girlfriend’s information. In the end, she realized that her only way to go back home was to make Tiana and Johnny happy, even if it meant making herself miserable.

Samuel Brinton was a teenager when he told his father he sometimes felt that he had feelings for one of his male friends. After hearing this, his father knocked him out cold, and Samuel woke up in the emergency room of his mission organization. He was then sent to conversion therapy. While there, he was told that he was the only gay left in the world, “that the government had come through and killed off every other single gay on the entire globe.” The government’s motive to kill off all of the gays was because they had brought AIDS into America, and by killing them, the government was saving the population. To an ordinary person, this sounds ridiculous, but Samuel was vulnerable, and he believed every word the “therapists” said. He was also told that God hated him.

Samuel’s “therapy” experience differed from Garrard’s and Alex’s in that he was exposed to “physical” therapy. The therapists placed his hands in ice while pictures of men touching other men were shown, and in another method, the therapists attached heating coils to him, turning them on while pictures of men touching men were shown, and turning them off while pictures of men touching women were shown. Basically, Samuel went through what Pavlov’s dogs went through: classical conditioning. Samuel’s “therapy” culminated in electroshock therapy, in which electrodes were attached to his fingers, and shocks were given to him while he was shown pornographic images of men having sex with men.

Ultimately, although all survivor stories are different, they are all “that wretched mental torture, which is completely legalized in this country [the United States].”

The Psychological Effects of Conversion Therapy

No matter what type of conversion therapy was experienced, Garrard, Alex, and Samuel all experienced suicidal ideation, with Alex attempting suicide once, and Samuel attempting several times. Garrard’s mother took him out of Love in Action when she found out it was making him suicidal, but for Alex and Samuel, they were told how stupid they were and had to remain in “therapy.” Samuel comments that “suicide is a sin, but nothing was much better.”

To this day, Garrard has a difficult time talking to his father. He was told that if he published his memoir, his father would risk losing his job as a pastor at the Church. Garrard published it anyway. While his mother is very sympathetic and feels awful for what she put him through, apologizing over and over again, their family will never be “what it otherwise might have been.” For Alex, she still talks to her parents, but she can never forgive them for the torture that they put her through. And for Samuel, it seems like he does not have a relationship with his parents anymore. He notes that his mother told him, “I will love you again if you will just change.” Regardless of the person, it is certain that conversion therapy damages familial relationships, either because the parents cannot accept having an openly homosexual child, or because the child can never forgive his/her parents for the traumatic experience, and understandably so.

Both Garrard and Alex no longer practice their religions, because it is too painful for them to recall how their “therapy” experiences abused the use of their Bibles. However, for Samuel, it was a process to regain religion into his life. Initially in therapy, his thoughts were, “Why does God hate me?” Post-therapy, his thoughts were, “God hates me, but I have to go to Church every Sunday anyway, so I might as well act like [I like] the space.” And in his second coming out, his Church community rejected him, and he said, “Like, come on, God, like you’re not going to do this twice to me.” So, he decided to study abroad in Shanghai, China, where he found an underground church and “realized that these people were dying for the faith that they held. And if something was that important, maybe [he] should at least understand why [he] had rejected it.” Now, he is in “a space where [he] believes that interpretation, in the past, has been damaging, and that relationship in the current and future is enlightening.”

All three find it hard to get close to other people. Post Love in Action, Garrard’s gut reaction has been, “No one is going to get close enough to hurt me [again].” Love in Action has harmed his relationships with other people, and makes it hard to start relationships with new people. Samuel has described the lasting effects of his conversion therapy as “eternal,” and this is true for almost every survivor of the practice. He acknowledges that, for the rest of his life, he will probably have some of these effects, though they have gotten better with time. It is important to focus on survivors for this reason, because even though they have escaped the hell that is conversion therapy, they will be carrying the trauma inflicted upon them for the rest of their lives, and that is not okay.

A Possible Analogy?

Deprogramming, also known as ‘reverse brainwashing,’ is an attempt for parents to rescue their children from cults. The practice started in the early 1970s – around the same time that conversion therapy became popularized – and was led by Ted Patrick, who is considered to be the ‘Father of Deprogramming.’ Patrick describes cult members as “mindless robots doing what’s programmed into them.” Although he has denied that any physical force is involved in removing people from cults, in some cases, he has been accused of using it, along with coercion, deception, and harassment tactics to break the programming. When he had one-on-one time with the victim, Patrick tried to talk some sense into him/her: tried to get him/her to recognize he/she was being controlled.

Concern grew in parents of cult members when their children essentially dropped out of society to live in radical communes, often undergoing radical personality changes. In a way, cults are a type of “conversion,” converting its members to think in a certain way. Many of these groups basically say “independent thinking is sinful, evil, wrong. There is only one way to think, and it’s our way.” Patrick built the foundation for intervention work, commenting, “When you go into these cults, and someone destroys your mind, you do not have any rights. And then what we do is, when they are deprogrammed, all of their freedom and rights are returned.” This is how Patrick justifies deprogramming: to prevent a greater harm. But what are parents’ rights to recover their kids? Some say that parents have a right to rescue their child if they feel their child is under some type of spell, or influence of drug or alcohol, or in trouble period. Patrick says that parents “have a right to go and give as much help as possible. That is their human right and constitutional right.”

But what if parents’ conception of being under “some type of spell” includes homosexuality? Is it still their human and constitutional right to send their child to conversion therapy, if they truly believe it is wrong? Where do we draw the line?

The way I see it is this: cults brainwash their members and therefore take away these people’s autonomy, or freedom, to live and think for themselves. The same can be said of alcoholism and addiction; these are diseases that, essentially, like cults, remove a person’s ability and right to control his/her life; he/she is brainwashed into thinking that he/she needs “just one more glass of wine” or “just a few more pills.” In these situations, it is perfectly acceptable for parents to intervene to “get their child back.” Being gay, though, is completely different. One cannot be brainwashed into homosexuality, homosexuality does not steal one’s right to live the way he/she wants to, and if one is gay, living as an openly gay individual is staying true to his/her authentic self. In this case, parents should not intervene. Homosexuality is not dangerous to anyone in the way that alcoholism or drug addiction is. If parents were to send their child to conversion therapy, they would be taking away their child’s rights and freedom to think independently. I think it all comes down to autonomy – if you are sending your child to a center that controls your child’s every behavior and thought, then you are violating his/her inherent autonomy, and that is flat-out wrong.

The Future of Conversion Therapy: A Solution?

Arguably one of the most imperative steps to ending conversion therapy for good is mass education. Barely anybody knows that conversion therapy is still happening, and because of that, we are not making the progress that we need to. If we get the word out about this dangerous practice, then there is a chance that enough people will be appalled by it that the government will listen and act accordingly (unfortunately, this most likely will not happen under the Trump administration, so we may have to wait it out until he leaves office).

As far as a solution goes, I think we must start with the parents or potential parents. Bria and Chrissy, a popular lesbian couple on YouTube, wrote a song titled “Stop Birthing Gays,” in which they placed the blame on heterosexual couples for giving birth to gay children in the first place. The opening lyric to the song, repeated multiple times, is: “Maybe if you’re straight, and you hate the gays, maybe you should stop giving birth to them.” They later go on to sing, “Now that we’re all clear, that it’s gays you fear, straight people stop birthing gays.” Though it is meant to be a lighthearted, funny song, the couple has a point: if you are not ready to accept and love your child unconditionally, then maybe you are not ready to have one. Of course, I realize it is not as simple as educating potential parents about homosexuality, so I believe we have to get to the root of the problem: religious institutions.

For far too long, religious institutions have dictated the way gay people should be treated in society. Conservative Christians have started things as absurd as the Religious Freedom Act, which would enable a company to refuse to cater to same-sex couples due to their religion. Church and state need to be clearly separated, and churches need to stop preaching hatred for a particular group of people. The government needs to take matters into its own hands, because religious institutions are not in the position to decide what is legal and what is not. Ideally, in order to pass a national ban on all forms of conversion therapy, our government should be comprised of leaders free of religious biases, and of leaders who justify their policies by using their religion.

It has been over forty years since the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM. Therapy should be reserved only for mental illnesses and disorders, or for people having a difficult time. To group this practice in with therapy is a dishonor to the therapeutic practices that are dedicated to helping their clients, not actively making their clients’ lives worse. Conversion therapy is not just our present; “unless something changes, it’s also our future.”


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