Conversion Therapy: Dated, Debunked and Dangerous

Cartoon by Emma Hines.

For over half a century, the United States has perpetuated the practice of conversion therapy, the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological or spiritual interventions.

Throughout the 1960s, prominent psychiatrists were praised for their claims that homosexuality was a curable mental illness. According to these psychiatrists, marriages were saved and made from conversion therapy.

Since then, the practice has been wrought with conflict and controversy. In the 1960s, psychiatrists such as Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides argued that homosexuality is a form of psychosocial maladjustment as a result of an individual’s childhood.

However, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychodynamic theory, held the belief that all children are inherently bisexual, developing a fixed sexual orientation only in adolescence through identification with the parent of the same sex. He even stated in 1935 specifically that homosexuality was not a form of mental illness and strongly discouraged any attempt to treat it as such.

Unfortunately, as with many of Freud’s theories, his beliefs regarding sexual orientation were widely misappropriated by conservative Americans and émigré psychiatrists vested in reaffirming the heterosexual, breadwinner-homemaker household in the wake of World War II, according to a 2015 article appearing in TIME Magazine.

Thankfully, the work of LGBTQIA+ activists alongside social workers and psychotherapists led to the practice being largely discredited by the 1990s, but conversion therapy is still far from gone.

Members of the Ulster County Legislature voted unanimously and without discussion on April 17 to set a public hearing on proposal to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors across the county; the bill will be the subject of a public hearing this month.

If passed, the law would make practicing conversion therapy a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or one year in jail. It also would require that applicable licensing boards be notified of the crime.

We at The New Paltz Oracle commend our local legislators for their unanimous passage of this proposal to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors. Furthermore, we believe that New York state should ban the practice statewide.

Currently, only 10 states and the District of Columbia have banned the use of conversion therapy on minors. These states are Washington, Nevada, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. Noticeably absent from this list is New York.

Although the practice is not banned in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned public and private healthcare insurers from covering the practice and prohibited use of the practice on minors in various mental health facilities in 2016. In addition to Cuomo’s regulations, New York City has banned the practice entirely, and Erie County adopted a law banning its use in February.

A law banning conversion therapy on minors passed the state Assembly earlier this year, but it has stalled in the state Senate. Additionally, a growing number of municipalities have enacted similar protections, including cities and counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, Florida, New York, Arizona and Wisconsin, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Minority Whip Jonathan Heppner proposed the law for Ulster County last month after he discovered that conversion therapy had not been banned in the state of New York. If the law is passed, therapists practicing in the county would be banned from the use of conversion therapy, reparative therapy or any other practice that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone under the age of 18.

Conversion therapy is a range of discredited and potentially dangerous practices encompassing talk therapy to treatments involving induced nausea and physical pain. Despite its rejection by nearly every medical and mental health organization for decades, discrimination and societal bias toward the LGBTQIA+ community has allowed some practicioners to continue conducting the harmful practice.

Research shows that societal prejudice causes significant medical, psychological and other harms to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The potential risks of “reparative therapy” are great and include depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient, according the American Psychiatric Association.

For example, research on the issue of family acceptance of LGBTQIA+ youth conducted at San Francisco State University found that compared with LGBTQIA+ young people who were not rejected or were only a little rejected by their parents and caregivers because of their gay or transgender identity, highly rejected LGBTQIA+ young people were: eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report high levels of depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs and three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs.

Countless professional medical and mental health organizations affirm that the treatment is harmful and/or is not effective, including: the American College of Physicians, the American Counseling Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the World Psychiatric Association.

Furthermore, the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry affirms that, “The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry finds no evidence to support the application of any “therapeutic intervention” operating under the premise that a specific sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression is pathological. Furthermore, based on the scientific evidence, the AACAP asserts that such “conversion therapies” (or other interventions imposed with the intent of promoting a particular sexual orientation and/or gender as a preferred outcome) lack scientific credibility and clinical utility. Additionally, there is evidence that such interventions are harmful. As a result, “conversion therapies” should not be part of any behavioral health treatment of children and adolescents.”

The idea of outlawing an outdated, debunked and harmful practice with low efficacy and little basis in science is not a radical one. Rather, it is a small step in achieving equality for a systematically marginalized community of millions of Americans.

We at The Oracle support diversity in all forms to the fullest extent and firmly believe that conversion therapy is a detriment to diversity that has no place anywhere, especially in New York State.