A Big Step Toward Ending "Cure Gay People" Therapy

Photo: Cultura RM/Luc Beziat.
"I went to a weekend retreat and we were told certain things were supposed to happen — God would speak to us and give us a new identity," says Josh Sanders. “That just never happened for me. I went through an exorcism and was promised change." Sanders was sent to "conversion therapy" in 2011, a practice that promises to "cure" gay and transgender people. It didn't work. "That change didn't happen. I was still very attracted to men," he told us.

Conversion therapy — the harmful and totally ineffective practice of therapists and counselors trying to turn LGBTQ individuals straight — is still alarmingly common. But, last week, the U.S. government released a report calling for the end of conversion therapy for all minors, nationwide. While a ban like this wouldn't have protected Josh, who was in his twenties when he was told the process could change him, it's a huge step toward shifting away from the idea that any process like this can — or should — alter any LGBTQ person's sexual orientation or gender identity at all.

The government reports — "Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth" — hopes first to educate families. By putting their children through conversion therapy, these families are doing irreparable harm and absolutely no good, the report asserts, citing medical and expert consensus.

"It's children's lives that are at risk. It's proven time and time again that conversion therapy leads to suicide, it leads to bullying, it leads to terrible, terrible outcomes for these children," says Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, which aims to end discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.

Thoughts of suicide, especially following bouts of painful bullying, is a trend that needs to be addressed in the LGBTQ youth community. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 25% of students who had sexual contact with only members of the opposite sex had "seriously considered" attempting suicide. This is where the "support" and "affirm" parts of the report come into play — by encouraging families to accept children for who they are, the government believes it can help lower rates of depression and disengagement among LGBTQ youth.

Conversion therapy is especially dangerous for minors, who are most vulnerable to pressure from parents or other authority figures who want them to undergo the ineffective treatment. Therefore, legislation banning conversion therapy needs to start by focusing on kids.

To better understand the ramifications of conversion therapy, we spoke to Sanders about why he went to conversation therapy in the first place. As a gay man and Christian raised Catholic and Lutheran, Sanders identified strongly with both faiths and wanted to commit himself to serving them. A lifelong athlete, he got a job with a church ministry as the athletic director of an evangelical sports camp. Then he got fired — for being gay.

Hopeful, Sanders discussed his identity with his religious mentors, who insisted he get fixed, by way of conversion therapy.

His counselors blamed his sexual orientation on his upbringing. Josh had an absent father and an overbearing mother; surely, the therapists said, those "cofactors" turned him gay. Josh knew they were wrong. "I started to meet people who had great, healthy relationships with their parents, and they were still gay. What I was being told wasn't matching up," he said.

Years later, Josh is still gay, and he is still a Christian. He no longer belongs to the church that eschewed him, but he says his faith helped him understand who he is, and why being that guy is natural, immovable, and awesome. He's excited about the new report, and like all people in favor of progressive gender and sexual rights, he believes change shouldn't stop here.

"When we talk about gender, sexual orientation, or identity within faith-based communities, people are usually focused on the physical act. They immediately sexualize it," Sanders said. He wants those people to know that "it's not just something that happens in our bedrooms, but it's an actual part of our identity, our behaviors, our attractions, who we are. It's something that's innate, it's not a choice."

Sanders is supported by activists and experts such as those who penned the report, and by people like GLAAD's Ellis.

"Who wants to take a medicine that doesn't make them better?" Ellis said, referring to the fact that conversion therapy just doesn't work. Then, she made her point stronger:

"There is nothing to make better here," she said.

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