This week, a major force behind "gay conversion therapy," Joseph Nicolosi, PhD, died at the age of 70. But the ideas he championed are still distressingly widespread. The truth is, not only is the idea of conversion therapy (a.k.a. "reparative therapy") totally discredited, it's also still damaging people today.
The basic (and false) idea behind conversion therapy is that a person's sexuality — specifically homosexuality — can be changed. Different groups have used various techniques to supposedly accomplish this task, involving both physical and emotional abuse. Indeed, there are horrific reports and case studies of practitioners using nausea-inducing drugs or electric shocks. However, those tactics are no longer the norm, thankfully.
Some distinguish between explicit conversion therapy and "ex-gay" organizations such as the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which Dr. Nicolosi founded. But ex-gay organizations are still based on the prejudiced ideas that homosexuality is wrong and should be changed — and there are plenty of heartbreaking stories to go along with that. The limited research we have on the impact of these practices shows that those who end up in these programs are often faced with serious psychological distress and even lower self-image when the "treatment" inevitably fails.
Today, conversion therapy has been discredited by basically every major medical and psychological organization out there. Although the American Psychological Association (APA) once considered homosexuality a disorder, the organization officially changed its position in 1974 and has since called for an end to these practices: "So-called reparative therapies are aimed at 'fixing' something that is not a mental illness and therefore does not require therapy," said then-president of the APA Barry S. Anton, PhD, in a 2015 statement. "There is insufficient scientific evidence that they work, and they have the potential to harm the client.”
And so, in the wake of Dr. Nicolosi's death, "Ex-gay therapy should die with its pioneer," as the Daily Beast so eloquently put it. Several states already have legislation banning mental health professionals from offering conversion therapy to minors. In addition, New York State has placed restrictions on insurance coverage for the practice.
On the other hand, just in the last few years, Oklahoma put forth legislation that would legitimize and protect conversion therapy. Luckily, it was defeated in both 2015 and 2016. "So-called conversion 'therapy' uses fear and shame, telling young people that the only way to find love or acceptance is to change the very nature of who they are," said national field director for the Human Rights Campaign Marty Rouse after the 2015 defeat. "Psychological abuse has no place in therapy, no matter the intention."