Content warning: this article contains discussions of religion, the medical establishment and sexuality.
At the turn of the 20th century, the field of psychiatry thought it had gained a cure to one of society’s most shameful and persistent troubles: homosexuality.
The emergence of “conversion therapy” — a pseudoscience aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — was carried out through a variety of grotesque methods. Now, Idaho’s conservative neighbor Utah has joined 18 other states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico in banning “conversion therapy,” and Idaho has an opportunity to make a change in protecting its citizens from a state-sponsored system of hatred this legislative session.
Though the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973 after a rising gay and trans movement gained traction and the practice of “conversion therapy” was thoroughly debunked among scientists, homophobia and transphobia were deeply embedded in American culture in the durable idea that sexuality could be changed. At that point, churches and religious communities took up the task of “converting” youth.
The Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles found in 2018 that 698,000 adults in the United States have experienced “conversion therapy.” In the coming years, 57,000 people will receive religious-affiliated “conversion therapy” before they reach the age of 18, and 20,000 will receive it from a health care professional where the practice is not banned. Even with some bans, religious communities are reinventing their methods, using the term “identity workshop” with the goal of aligning church members closer to the group’s ideas of gender and sexuality as a way to immortalize “conversion therapy.”
In recent years, however, the effects of conversion therapy have led to substantial public outcry against the practice, even from former “ex-gay” leaders who signed a 2014 letter in opposition to “conversion therapy.” The major LGBTQIA+ focused crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, The Trevor Project, advocates against “conversion therapy.” The Trevor Project recently cited a study in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that concluded that lesbian, gay and bisexual people between the ages of 21-25 who were rejected by their caregivers after coming out had significantly higher negative health outcomes, including higher rates of suicide attempts, depression and illegal drug use than their peers who were not rejected.
The trauma of rejection combines with shame and self-hatred when homophobia and transphobia operate at a societal level — just last September, McKrae Game, the founder of one of the United States’ largest “conversion therapy” centers, known as Hope for Wellness Network, denounced the practice as harmful, ineffective and came out as gay himself.
This is a common trend: queer people who have internalized hatred have often led the charge in faith-affiliated “conversion therapy.” Alan Chambers, former leader of “ex-gay” ministry, Exodus International, has apologized for the harm he caused and says he is homosexual.
Idaho could be one of many Republican-led states to ban “conversion therapy” in some form this legislative session, building on the momentum to end the practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a major political power in both Utah and Idaho, originally opposed Utah’s ban in October 2019 before switching to support it a month later.
As a queer person, I am fortunate to have never experienced institutionalized “conversion therapy.” But the culture I grew up in constantly told me — and all my queer siblings — that queerness was immoral. At the same time, our straight siblings were internalizing the same message.
I have since been able to work towards claiming my queerness as the source of power that so many people worked so hard to stifle. Inherently, being queer is a revolutionary act: mostly against the people in the church I grew up attending and the friends who made homophobic jokes, but all too often against myself. As a child, I could not help but listen to them all and join in their chorus of hate and fear. I do not blame myself for trying to survive, but I am now responsible for fighting to ensure that no child has to grow up in a massive system engineered to “convert” them before they even have a chance to form their identity.
Banning “conversion therapy” is one essential step.
We have all heard the phrase “being gay is not a choice,” but even that has limitations. Removing the cultural narrative that being queer or transgender is not a choice is yet another concern. Though it is true that sexuality and gender are not chosen, this common sentiment implies that queer people deserve respect because they lack control over their gender or sexuality. Rather, all human beings are inherently worthy of dignity and celebration.
Idaho legislators will soon have the opportunity to protect children from religious authorities in other ways. The least we can do as a state is ban a debunked practice that harms our youth.