A new first of its kind survey in the UK shows the detrimental impact of attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, also knows as conversion therapy. The 2018 Faith & Sexuality Survey of 4613 respondents provides strong evidence of the harm caused by such tactics.
It found that more than half of those who had attempted to change their sexual orientation reported mental health issues and less than a third said that they “have gone on to lead a happy and fulfilled life”. Of those who suffered mental health issues (281 people), nearly a third (91 people) said they had attempted suicide while over two-thirds (193 people) said they had had suicidal thoughts.
In the UK, it was recently announced that the government plans to ban the practice as part of an initiative to improve the lives of those in the LGBTQ community. The decision comes after a national survey of LGBTQ people revealed that 2% of respondents had experienced conversion therapy while 5% had been offered it. In a statement, Prime Minister Theresa May said: "For anyone who is LGBT, or has a family member or friend who is, these results will be sadly recognisable."
Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 film The Miseducation of Cameron Post explores the absurdity of "conversion" programmes and the effects they can have on participants. In the US, an estimated 698,000 adults have received conversion therapy, 350,000 of whom as adolescents, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
Talking therapy is the most typical form of conversion therapy, but is still detrimental to a person’s mental health. Reverend Sally Hitchiner from Diverse Church, who works with over 1,000 people in the UK recovering from such practices, said: "If they don’t discover us, they often become suicidal. They realise they can’t change their sexuality so they feel like they might as well end their life."
Twenty-seven-year-old Shulli, a consultant from London, attended one-on-one gay conversion therapy earlier in her 20s. Judi Price, a 56-year-old photographer and physician's assistant from Kansas, attended a religious therapy programme as a young adult. Here both women tell Refinery29 their stories.
Shulli, 27, London
I first came out to my mum over dinner while on holiday when I was 11. I thought I was just telling her who I fancied as I didn’t get the concept of gay and straight. As I was so young, we both brushed it off and we didn’t really speak about it again. I came out again at 18 and then properly in my early 20s.
Both my parents were really shocked because we didn’t know anyone who was gay. Despite this, they were quite supportive, though they were concerned about what this would mean for my future. Though the Jewish community is not averse to homosexuality, I personally felt as if I were sinning. I had heard rumours that people had turned straight so I thought it would be best for me to do the same.
I got in touch with some really conservative Rabbis and that’s how I got introduced to gay conversion therapy. I took a year out of university and went to weekly sessions with an expensive therapist, which I funded with the money I made over the summer.
My therapy started with them looking for the 'cause' of my gayness. They blamed low self-esteem, my relationship with my parents and childhood trauma. I desperately tried to find out about any abuse from my past, thinking I may have blocked it out of my mind. But this just didn’t seem to be the case. When this didn’t work, they used scare tactics.
They told me being gay was all about sex and partying. I was led to believe I wouldn’t be able to be in a loving relationship with marriage and kids.
They told me being gay was all about sex and partying. I was led to believe I wouldn’t be able to obtain a loving relationship with marriage and kids. They later told me it could be as a result of something I had done in my past life, so we did a past life regression, which was a form of meditation where we looked for something that may have caused me to be gay. I couldn’t see anything so I just made it up when asked about it. Of course that didn’t work, so I grew frustrated.
After considerable time had passed, I eventually told my therapist I didn’t trust him. I felt as if I’d gone the extra mile and it still wasn’t working. I’d even ask for homework and block out any thoughts that went against what I was learning, but I still felt no difference. I asked him to introduce me to someone it had worked on if we were to continue. This took him six months – in the meantime I had to continue paying for my sessions. I asked the girl they brought if she could kiss or have sex with someone of the opposite sex, to which her answer was no. She was clearly not straight so I stopped the therapy.
The idea of a test is prevalent within all religious groups that are trying to stop people from being gay. They say most people don’t know what their life test is but you’re lucky enough to know it. It scares you out of leaving therapy as you don’t want to be a failure. I finally managed to, but it wasn’t easy. Thinking about trying not to be gay all day, every day, was exhausting. I’d randomly burst out crying so eventually my dad begged me to stop.
As a result of the therapy, I now find it hard to trust people, especially those in positions of power.
Judi, 56, Kansas
In my third year studying a degree in biology and chemistry at MidAmerica Nazarene University, near Kansas City, my friend Stephanie and I kissed. Despite being attracted to her, I didn’t realise I was gay at the time. I had no gay role models and homosexuality was never mentioned in church. For me, kissing didn’t feel sexual, but once it intensified, I could no longer justify our relationship as a friendship. I felt guilty and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so I broke it off.
After Stephanie, I dated more women, but it was always the same narrative: I’d date them and my faith would get in the way. It was a terrible feeling because I really liked these women and it was incomprehensible to them why we were breaking up. But for me, I thought being gay meant I was going to hell, so it wasn’t a choice.
The speakers emphasised that being gay was mental and, thus, changeable.
One year, when the usual guilt occurred, the girl I was dating convinced me to talk to a pastor. He offered to pay for me to go to a seminar. The conference was for people who were 'sexually broken' so sex addicts also attended. The speakers emphasised that being gay was mental and, thus, changeable. At the time, I despised being this way because it was painful to meet someone I wanted to date, but not be able to.
I searched for ex-gay groups in my area and found one with a live-in programme for men, and weekly group therapy sessions and bible studies for those who could not or chose not to do the live-in programme. It was very similar to drug rehab. They emphasised that the feelings we had were unnatural and were impulses akin to having an alcohol addiction. They explained that being gay was a byproduct of negative life experiences, such as being sexually assaulted, or as a result of negative relationships with same sex parents. I had a bad relationship with my mother, who physically abused me as a child, so I strongly believed this to be the reason.
I dedicated myself to getting out of this mindset with the group for almost three years and prayed ardently about not being gay. But it never happened. I became frustrated once I established the conversion wasn’t working. I realised that not only could I never date women because of my beliefs but neither could I date men.
I eventually realised the group was a lie and left to join a gay positive church, but the road to accepting my sexuality was not easy. In that time period, I would've killed myself if it weren’t for my will to live. I have a very strong family history of depression and suicide, so I was determined not to be another one. I did know queer people who had killed themselves so for me, gay conversion therapy is not just a social issue, it's a life and death issue.