Published on June 20th, 2014 |
by Will Highfield
The Arguments for ‘Gay Cures’ Just Don’t Add Up
“I believe that [gay conversion therapy] causes all kind of trauma. And I know that there are people who have taken their life because they felt so ashamed of who they are…and that’s something that will haunt me until the day I die.” This is what Alan Chambers, the final President of Exodus International, had to say about conversion therapy last year. Exodus International (now defunct) propagated the idea of a ‘gay cure’ for over thirty years, and its leader’s words are a chilling reminder of the consequences of conversion therapy.
Gay conversion therapy (sometimes called ‘gay cure’ therapy) is the attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. Professional consensus on conversion therapy is clear. It has been condemned by the UK Council for Psychotherapy as having no good evidence in its support and some evidence it causes harm. The American Psychiatric Association claims it can lead to depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviour. The World Health Organization has said conversion therapy has no rigorous scientific studies in its favour and is a “serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.”
Despite this, conversion therapy undoubtedly and regrettably persists in the present. It is not unlawful in the UK, and a recent poll of 1,300 therapists found over 200 had attempted the therapy, some though referrals by GPs. A Bill that aimed to ban conversion therapy was published last year, but failed to pass through Parliament. The government maintains that although they do not recommend conversion therapy, they will not “introduce statutory regulation for psychotherapists.” Instead, they have only committed to “minimise the risk” that gay people will encounter therapists who propose conversion therapy. This simply is not enough.
When something as serious as mental health and wellbeing is at stake, I would argue that a laissez faire attitude to therapies unsupported by evidence is irresponsible and unethical. Aiming to eradicate a healthy, normal and fundamental aspect of a person is ethically dubious to say the least, even if the effectiveness of the therapy were scientifically supported. Given this, it is clear that proponents of such therapy need some exceedingly good arguments for why it should ever be inflicted on often vulnerable people.
The main argument for conversion therapy centres around freedom. Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, Revd Andrew Symes, says that banning conversion therapy takes away a person’s freedom to “reduce the feelings [of same-sex attraction] and develop heterosexual attraction, perhaps with a view to marriage and family”, calling this a “major and completely unnecessary restriction on human liberty.”
But I sense that there is more at play here than merely a concern for freedom, and I hope the following example will illustrate this. Imagine a situation in which a straight man has had a series of disastrous and unhealthy relationships with women, and these have led him to become an alcoholic with low self-esteem. Suppose that all his friends are gay men with good jobs and in long-term, healthy, and happy relationships. The man then decides that he wants to become gay, believing that it will solve his problems.
If the proponents of ‘gay cures’ are genuinely only concerned with freedom, then consistency demands that they respect or even endorse the man’s decision. But I am pretty certain that they would not. This shows that ‘gay cure’ enthusiasts hold not only the delusion that sexuality can be changed, but also the value judgement that it is somehow desirable for a gay person to attempt to become straight and not the other way round. They believe not only that sexuality can be changed, but that it should be changed when the person is gay.
These types of value judgements trickle through society, feeding prejudice and damaging the vulnerable. They contribute to a climate where one in six gay or bisexual people have been the victim of a homophobic hate crime or incident and a tragic 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide.
Some proponents of conversion therapy may try and bolster their claim – that gay-to-straight conversion is desirable but not the other way round – by claiming that homosexuality causes mental health issues and emotional problems. This argument implies that being gay is itself the root cause of the problems that a gay person may have. This is simply untrue – being gay is a natural variation of human sexuality that is not intrinsically harmful.
But it is true that gay people are more likely than straight people to to face problems such as depression, increased risk of self-harm and suicide, and low self-esteem. However, these are not the inevitable results of being gay, but most likely caused by discrimination, rejection by most religions, hostility, danger of violence, harassment, and so on. Society is what needs to change, not gay people.
I will grant that there is currently an elephant in the room – religious belief. Some, or indeed many, religious people may argue that homosexuality is a sin, and that this is why gay-to-straight conversion should be sought. Although people are clearly free to hold these beliefs, this does not justify advocating a therapy that lacks scientific backing and has the potential to cause harm. This would be an unfair encroachment by religion on the sphere of public health, a sphere that should be ruled by reason and science, not particular religious views.
‘Gay cure’ advocates must not be allowed to masquerade behind appeals to ‘human liberty’ where in fact they are appealing to the idea that being gay is somehow inferior to being straight. A feigned concern with freedom glosses over the facts that gay cures are not supported by evidence, that they probably cause harm, and that there is nothing wrong with being gay. Without delving into the issue of regulation or outright bans of certain therapies, it is imperative that conversion therapy and the ideology behind it is denounced. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the fact that this therapy will, just like Exodus International, one day be confined to the history books.
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