The word conversion means change, transformation, or metamorphosis. Sometimes conversion is a natural and logical process. The conversion of the food we eat into energy or waste can’t be stopped; it’s science. Sometimes conversion is a choice. The switch from one political party to another or the conversion from one religion to a new one are done through thoughtful choices made to create changes in our lives that align with our belief systems. Conversion doesn’t work if it has to be forced.
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, happens when licensed (yup) and unlicensed mental health professionals try to change one’s sexuality or gender identity in ways that assume who we fall in love with or how we feel as man, woman, neither or both are choices.
Conversion therapy goes against its own definition by becoming an unnatural process that does not help the person being treated. The person being forced to change is also not being helped to feel good about their sense of self. They are being made to fit others’ beliefs and ideals, not their own.
Sixteen states in the U.S., Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have banned conversion therapy. Texas and Georgia are trying to do the same, but it needs to be made illegal everywhere immediately, specifically when it comes to treating minors. Parents often force their children into harmful conversion therapy because they really think it works and that it’s best for their child based on what their religion tells them. Other parents are just scared, spiteful, and bigoted. Either way, making conversion therapy illegal would protect kids from parents who hurt them.
From talk therapy and “praying the gay away” to electroshock therapy, masturbatory reconditioning, and visualization on how to be straight and cisgender, conversion therapy uses a range of detrimental approaches to make a person become heterosexual and gender conforming. Conversion therapy also tries to convince people who know their gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex that they are in fact male or female based on the parts “God gave them at birth.”
Conversion therapy often runs under the (usually religious) assumption that anything that goes against the heteronormative idea of a straight, cisgender, and binary world full of people obeying gender stereotypes is not normal. LGBTQIA+ folks are no longer humans with free will; we don’t have the ability to change who they are. We are failures. We become projects. We are sinners who need to choose the “right way” to live. We are told we are bad, broken, and wrong. It doesn’t matter that a cisgender person can’t explain how they know they are a man or a woman or that they can’t “make” themselves be gay. Professionals who try to convert an individual from gay to straight or from transgender to cisgender believe that we have the choice to be different while they don’t. They can’t change, but they try to make us change.
Time and time again conversion therapy has been found to be ineffective.
In an article on Counseling Today, Dr. Whitman, a licensed counselor who works with LGBTQ clients, states, there is “no scientific evidence published in psychological peer-reviewed journals that conversion therapy is effective.” Nor are there any “longitudinal studies conducted to follow the outcomes for those individuals who have engaged in this type of treatment.”
But what does hold true time and time again is that conversion therapy, a lack of acceptance, and the overwhelming rejection leads to anxiety, depression, self-harm, and death by suicide. A study done by the Family Acceptance Project showed that LGBTQ kids whose parents forced conversion therapy on them attempted suicide at twice the rate as their LGBTQ peers. And the Trevor Project reports, “LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.” 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide. And according to PMC Public Health, “82% of transgender people are less likely to attempt suicide with strong support.”
The problem is not identifying along the LGBTQIA+ rainbow of gender and sexuality spectrums; it’s the fact that people can’t accept us for who we are. When I am respected, accepted, affirmed and validated for being me, I feel pretty damn good. I still have my stuff because society keeps telling me that I am a sexual deviant, pedophile and freak, but when I surround myself with people who love and see me for who I am, I feel more like I deserve to be here than not.
When I came out as gay, I had family members who tried to pray me straight. The theory was that I just needed a good Christian man to take care of me. I needed God, they told me. Nah. I didn’t need those things. Nor did I want them. Those were someone else’s desires to make me something that made sense to their ignorant brains and bigoted religions. What I really needed and wanted was unconditional love.
And when I was questioning my gender identity several years later, conversion therapy would not have been the answer any more than the alcohol I drank in excess while I tried to be okay being cisgender. I never “found God” or went back to heterosexuality, mostly because I never lost him or ever experienced heterosexuality, but I found sobriety and people who love my trans, queer, nonbinary identity.
Lynn McDonald, a Christian mom, who tried to put her gay son through conversion therapy years ago, now says this about the practice and the role religion plays in parenting: “As a Christian, not only am I not supposed to shun my child, I’m actually supposed to love my child and not only supposed to, I’m commanded to. It’s the greatest commandment.”
She and her husband support making conversion therapy illegal and have started a nonprofit called Embracing the Journey to help other Christian parents feel less alone and supported in positive ways as they navigate doing what’s actually best for their LGBTQ kids.
Acceptance and unconditional love are the not-so-secret tools for keeping your child mentally and physically well. One’s sexuality or gender identity cannot be converted, but a queer person’s body can become a toxic wasteland of shame and pain. We convert fear into self-harm. We convert sadness into addiction. We convert life into death. But we can never change the beautiful core of who we are.