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Not gay anymore

What's really behind conversion therapy


The LGBT community and its allies have been hearing about reparation therapy, also known as conversion therapy, for years.

Just recently, Milton S. Hershey students made headlines alleging that they were exposed to reparative therapy techniques.

Something wrong with homosexuality

The premise of conversion therapy is that you can change someone’s sexual orientation or as the name suggests repair someone’s sexual orientation as if it were broken. There are those who would have you believe that this is a legitimate form of therapy and that it works. Is this really true?

The first thing to understand about reparation therapy is that it suggests that there is something wrong with homosexuality.

Since 1975 the American Psychological Association has affirmed that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. The consensus of the health and mental health professionals is that homosexuality is a normal variation of sexual orientation. This is not to say that some people may be confused about their feelings and/or sexual orientation and seek therapy to work through their feelings. It is also true that members of the LGBT community seek therapy for the same reasons that straight people seek therapy.

Choose a sexual orientation

Another myth not supported by scientific evidence is that people consciously choose their sexual orientation.

In reality sexual orientation is more complex than some people assume. Not everyone is purely straight or gay. Some people’s sexual orientation has changed over their life time and others are truly bisexual. There is some scientific research to suggest differences in the brain between those who identify as homosexual and those who identify as heterosexual which suggests that sexual orientation is innate. Young children can know that their sexual orientation is different but not know how to label until they are somewhat older.

Why would anyone seek reparative therapy? Who wants to change their sexual orientation?

There are several reasons. Historically there has been considerable negativity associated with being any sexual orientation but straight. Homosexual or bisexual individuals have frequently felt pressured by their families and communities, especially certain religious communities to seek reparative therapy. If those around you are homophobic and you believe you will lose your family, be ostracized from the church in which you grew up or your community in general, there can be a strong pull to seek change. When the negativity becomes too great, individuals can internalize the homophobia and think that changing their sexual orientation is the answer.

What about youth?

What about youth who enter reparative therapy?

Most often they are there because their parents sent them to therapy, not because they want to change their sexual orientation. They are there because their parents and/or family are uncomfortable with their child identifying with a sexual orientation that is not straight.

What we have learned is that the family goes through a “coming out” process and sometimes the family members can benefit from therapy to cope with their feelings and the negative messages from society.

What we know is that trying to change someone’s sexual orientation does not work and can be harmful.

What we also know is that youth who have families that are supportive and allow the youth to identify their sexual orientation for themselves, have better mental health, and cope better with negative messages from the world around them.

Ethical question

My personal experience working with LGBT youth for over 20 years has been consistent with this finding. As a result mental health professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, consider it unethical to try to change someone’s sexual orientation.

There are also ex-gay ministries that view homosexuality as a sin, attempt to change sexual orientation, and even claim they are successful even when there is evidence to the contrary. Studies have also shown that those who claim they changed their orientation, in the long term they go back to homosexual relationships. Not only are these ministries unsuccessful in changing someone’s sexual orientation they also create negative self-esteem in the person and other harmful effects.

It is also not unheard of for parents or other individuals, often based on their religious beliefs, to use strategies on their own try to change a person’s, often a youth’s, sexual orientation. This might include cutting off the youth’s access to the internet and all social media, only allowing the youth to associate with peers at organized religious activities, and not allowing the youth to associate with anyone they perceive as gay or lesbian. In the situations I am aware of, the young person usually became depressed and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

Another example would be the houseparents’ at The Milton Hershey School who allegedly asked students to view a video of an antigay sermon. This was not therapy provided by or sanctioned by the psychologists at the school. However, it contributed to making the home environment of those young men stressful and emotionally unsafe and should not be permitted in any school or residences that serve youth.

Understand rather than change

Instead of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation we would do better to understand the experiences of people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual. We should help families who are struggling to understand their family member’s sexual orientation by providing them with accurate information and empathy for their experience. If someone is truly confused or struggling with their sexual orientation a reputable therapist will help them explore and work through their feelings, letting the person discover what is true for them.

It is not ethical to try to promote any one sexual orientation and it is not in the person’s best interest. We should be striving to create environments and supports to help people, whether gay or straight, be the best version of themselves.

Melinda Eash, M.S., is a practicing psychologist.