With two months between us and a Trump administration, it’s time we consider Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s relationship with the many different issues affecting LGBTQ people ― including conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is not only promoted in the Republican party’s 2016 platform, the most anti-LGBTQ platform in the party’s history, but something Vice President-elect Mike Pence has actively supported while a member of congress. He is also arguably one of the most anti-LGBTQ state elected officials in the country.
So, what exactly is conversion therapy? Why is it so bad?
Conversion therapy is a set of practices that intend to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity to fit heterosexual or cisgender standards and expectations ― and it is usually religiously motivated.
Therapy practices can include methods such as talk therapy, electroshock therapy, treating LGBTQ identity as an addiction issue like drugs or alcohol, and more. While certain therapies, like talk therapy, are also legitimate forms of care for people who experience mental health problems, being gay is, of course, not a mental health disorder.
TC, a 19-year-old gay man who spoke to The Huffington Post anonymously for this article in order to protect his safety, is a survivor of conversion therapy practices.
TC was subjected to conversion therapy in 2012 when he was 15 years old after his parents discovered he was gay. The conversion therapy practices took place in the basement of a church after school hours, and were explained to TC and his parents as having two separate components. He told The Huffington Post:
The first step ― which usually lasted six months ― [is] where they “deconstruct us as a person.” Their tactics still haunt me. Aversion therapy, shock therapy, harassment and occasional physical abuse. Their goal was to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ (most of us were gay, but the entire spectrum was represented), and they knew what they were doing.... The second step of the program, they “rebuilt us in their image.” They removed us of everything that made us a unique person, and instead made us a walking, talking, robot for Jesus. They retaught us everything we knew. How to eat, talk, walk, dress, believe, even breathe. We were no longer people at the end of the program.
TC said that the conversion therapy sessions would take place every weekday, with shock therapy treatments lasting approximately an hour, and aversion therapy lasting three.
According to Dr. Jack Drescher, a leading specialist and critic of conversion therapy practices, there is not just one set of practices understood to be used in conversion therapy. “People have tried all kinds of things because none them really work,” he told The Huffington Post.
Drescher also said that the majority of research surrounding conversion therapy has taken place on adults who’ve undergone the process, and there is very little research surrounding LGBTQ youth who have been through conversation therapy practices. “But of course you have anecdotal stories,” he said. “Some children have reported running away from home, there have been cases in the news of young people of when their family found out about them or they came out and the family insisted they go to conversion therapy, some of these kids have killed themselves. These are anecdotal reports, but they are troubling reports, of course.”
“Their goal was to get us to hate ourselves for being LGBTQ.”
TC said multiple minors involved in his program ultimately took their own lives.
“They were able to turn us against ourselves,” he said. “This is what drew so many people to suicide. We all shared a sense of loathing towards who we were and who we loved. It wasn’t just your regular ‘I hate myself.’ It was a disgust with the person you were and you wanted to do anything you could to change... Watching people disappear just became a fact of life after a while. You got used to it.”
While data around queer youth suicide and conversion therapy is lacking, research does show that suicide is an epidemic within the LGBTQ community, with rates of suicide four times greater for queer youth and nearly half of trans people having considered suicide at some point in their lives.
Reflecting on the history of conversion therapy practices, Drescher said there was a time when people didn’t believe that there was any harm in trying to change their sexuality. In fact, until the 1990s when many conversion therapists began openly marketing their services, most professional organizations did not comment on the practice.
Today, there are no mainstream psychiatric organizations that accept conversion therapies as a reputable practice. “The people who offer these kind of treatments often are not licensed,” Drescher explained. “They’re not bound by any state regulatory bodies for the kind of work they do.”
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is one such organization that adamantly advocates against conversion therapy.
“Conversion therapy causes serious harms,” NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter told The Huffington Post. “In the short-term, queer youth who go through conversion therapy are being cheated of the opportunity to gain self-confidence and self-esteem, to get support from family members and other adults, and to have normal adolescent developmental experiences around friendship, dating, and other social experiences. In the long-term, the negative health consequences of being subjected to conversion therapy are extremely serious and can include substance abuse, dropping out of school, HIV infection, depression, and suicide attempts.”
Additionally, experts do not believe a person can actually be “converted” or “cured” of gayness or queerness. Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the most prominent people who advocated for gay cures, actually apologized for his actions and the damage they inflicted in 2012.
““The people who offer these kind of treatments often are not licensed. They’re not bound by any state regulatory bodies for the kind of work they do.””
Currently, only five states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting LGBTQ youth from being forced into conversion therapy practices. There is a movement to ban it at the federal level, and President Obama has previously spoken out about the dangers of the practice.
TC escaped conversion therapy by feigning complete rehabilitation after returning to his hometown from a previously planned religious mission trip. Today, he attends a religious university and still identifies as gay privately, a secret from his family who thinks the conversion therapy “worked.”
“I want people to know that conversion therapy is literal torture,” TC continued. “[But] the experience also lit a fire underneath me to prove everyone wrong. I am gay, but I am not worthless. Life will continue no matter what, and the quality of my future depends on the work I put in now, and to prove them all wrong, I need to work my ass off.”
When asked if he had a message for pro-conversion therapy Vice President-elect Mike Pence, TC simply said: “I am a human. Treat me like one.”
Seeking more information about the lived ramifications of conversion therapy practices or ways you can help? Check out the NCLR’s #BornPerfect campaign.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.