When ‘conversion therapy’ appears in the media, we more often than not associate it with the United States, or more specifically, the Religious Right – distant and enigmatic, the ultra-conservative pariah that evades explanation. In the UK, we tend to think of conversion therapy as nothing more than a dark part of our history. Groups that support it, such as the True Freedom Trust, appear to be the sticky but minute residue of a distant past. Certainly, such ideas are now more likely to be met with a chorus of denunciation than widespread credibility, as they were in the 1950s.
But complacency has never won any battles – we must be wary that belief in conversion therapy is, if not often visible, still a reality in certain circles. There are still many who wish to seek out this bogus treatment, and people whose occupation is to propagate and provide it. It is these people who should worry us most, for as long as it remains legal in most parts of the world for deceptive groups to offer ‘conversion’ to heterosexuality, they will continue to prey on the minds of vulnerable LGBT+ individuals.
Britain’s experience with conversion therapy has most recently been brought to public attention by The Imitation Game, a biopic on the life of the Cambridge mathematician and father of modern-day computing, Alan Turing. Sentenced in 1952 for ‘gross indecency’ with another man, Turing chose to be hormonally castrated as a means of ‘conversion’ rather than fulfil a jail sentence. These ideas were in popular at the time. The Sunday Pictorial, for example, commented that “[w]hat is needed for [homosexuals] is a new establishment for them like Broadmoor. It should be a clinic rather than a prison, and these men should be sent there and kept there until they are cured. Doctors and psychiatrists would welcome the idea.”
With the encouragement of Churchill’s Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, thousands of men were convicted of gross indecency for same-sex acts, made possible by the Labouchere Amendment to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act. As if it were not bad enough that some of England’s finest minds, such as Turing and Oscar Wilde, suffered under this act, a large proportion of conversion therapy cases in Britain were state-sanctioned. Not surprising to us now, Turing’s therapy did not work, instead pushing him into severe depression. Captivated by the tale of Snow White, he killed himself in 1954 by biting a cyanide-dipped apple.
Although courts ceased handing down conversion therapy sentences with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, it continued to be practised both on and off the NHS. After the 1950s, ‘treatments’ actually became more brutal, expanding into electric shock and heat-needle methods. As late as 2009, a survey of 1,300 UK therapists found that 16% had attempted conversion therapy. Many people continue to put their faith in it, with Mike Davidson reporting to the BBC in 2013 that his conversion had been successful, and that ‘[He] didn’t regret the decision that [he] made.’ Others believe that by repressing their feelings through faith in God, they can overcome their same-sex attractions. True Freedom Trust provides countless testimonials, such as one which confidently predicts ‘a day coming when the aching will be gone and I will finally rest in God. Then it will be over, the battle won and everything conquered.’ Modern believers in conversion therapy have proved themselves combative. In 2012, The Core Christian Issues Trust attempted to respond to Stonewall’s ‘Some People are Gay, Get Over It!’ bus advertisement with counter-ads proclaiming ‘Some People are Ex-Gay, Get Over it!’ And most recently, in 2014, UKIP by-election candidate Roger Helmer suggested that conversion therapy should once again be provided on the NHS.
These therapies have never been self-contained in the NHS, however. One man who paid for private psychoanalysis sessions in the 1970s and 80s recalled in an interview with psychiatrist Michael King how the service made him feel ‘ontologically no good’, and how, after his failed conversion, he ‘felt like a rider who’s had his horse shot from under him.’ This sort of testimonial underlines a vital fact; conversion therapy is not only harmful in that it reinforces feelings of self-hatred in people with same-sex attractions, its very failure often induces destructive self-blame in clients, as found in a 2002 study by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder for the American Psychological Association. 87% (176) of those questioned by Shidlo and Schroeder reported the therapy as having failed. The vast majority of those who reported failure also reported great psychological harm caused by the treatment. One stated how ‘I felt like a cancer with a boil that someone is trying to lance out. I felt and still feel like a failure. . . . The counselling helped for a while but after that it reinforced the self-loathing and internalised homophobia.’ Many others talked of deep and continuing suicidal thoughts.
Until recently, supporters of conversion therapy have used a 2003 study by Robert Spitzer as their go-to source of scientific affirmation. Entitled ‘Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation’, Spitzer’s study concluded that ‘there is evidence that change in sexual orientation following some form of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.’ The American Psychiatric Association disowned this study and, along with most reputable medical bodies in the Western world, denounces the therapy’s practice. Spitzer himself retracted his claims in 2012, stating to the advocacy group Truth Wins Out that ‘I was quite wrong in the conclusions that I made from the study. The study does not provide evidence, really, that gays can change. And that’s quite an admission on my part. . . . I apologise for any harm that I have done to [gay people] because of the study’. He also said that ‘If somebody is troubled that they are homosexual, what they ought to do is face up to that and do something so they are more comfortable living with the way they are, because any attempt to change is really misguided.’
In Britain, almost every major psychological and medical organisation has issued statements against conversion therapy. This includes the British Council of Psychiatrists, the British Psychological Society, the British Psychoanalytic Council, among other respected institutions. In January 2015, fifteen organisations, including NHS England, issued the ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK’, stating a ‘shared commitment to protecting the public from the risks of conversion therapy’. NHS therapists have been informed that they must stop offering it. Scientifically, then, conversion therapy does not have a leg to stand on. There are still organisations in the UK that support and offer methods of conversion, mainly through self-help, but actual therapy is fast on the decline.
So is it right to implement a blanket ban on conversion therapy? Laws in California, New Jersey and elsewhere have banned its practice on children, but leave it open for adults. The arguments for this are predictable; adults must be left to make their own autonomous decisions, even if they are fundamentally harmful. But such an argument borders on callousness. Many of those who seek out therapy are caught in the throes of desperation. What they need, and what the NHS and other professional organisations recommend, is affirmative therapy to help them come to terms with their sexuality. Another worry is that a ban would merely push conversion underground, where it could potentially do even more harm. Whilst there is no quantitative data on this, such fears demonstrate why public education must accompany a ban, so as to prevent people seeking out this therapy in the first place.
Conversion therapy is dangerous, and is prone to trigger a collapse in self-esteem and even suicidal feelings. So long as it is allowed to operate and propagate, it is a threat to public health. Although it has been far more prevalent in the UK than most people acknowledge, the dust recently kicked up by conversion-supporters can be the final convulsions of a dying threat, if that is what we choose to make it. We can never stop people attempting conversion through ‘self-help’ or non-commercial, non-public vectors, but we can – all across the West – take a vital step and pronounce it universally illegal to sell and conduct this self-destructive pseudo-science.
Mariah Hickman (GR. Comment Contributor)
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