This Tuesday, I will walk into the historic Palais de Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with representatives of the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State as part of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign to protect LGBT youth from conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity through everything from talk therapy to exorcism to “orgasmic reconditioning.”
Under the Convention Against Torture, the United Nations has the power to address the practice of “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” including forcible or coercive treatment based on the false premise that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is a mental illness that can and should be cured. Shockingly, while two states have enacted laws that protect youth against this harmful practice, some unethical therapists continue to practice conversion therapy on children in 48 states. The result, especially for vulnerable youth, is lifelong damage that can include depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.
I’ll be joined in Geneva by human rights advocates from across the country, including Samuel Brinton, a survivor of these practices who travels the world advocating for the rights of LGBT youth. Sam is one of thousands of survivors who know the consequences of conversion therapy all too well. Sam, like many others, was told by a licensed therapist that being gay meant being alone forever. Over the course of therapy, Sam was subjected to lies and manipulation, physical restraints, extreme temperatures, needles, and even electric shocks.
According to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association, other techniques used to associate being LGBT with pain include inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis while showing the patient homoerotic images; having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when aroused by same-sex erotic images or thoughts; using shame to create aversion to same-sex attractions; and satiation therapy. While many therapists have abandoned such crude techniques in recent years, they are far from gone, and it is still common to attempt to bribe or discipline children out of gender-nonconforming behaviors, have patients snap a rubber band around their wrist whenever they have a sexual impulse, or pressure youth to attribute their identity to repressed sexual abuse.
Part of what makes conversion therapy so dangerous is that the same people arguing that being LGBT is a disease are the ones selling the cure. But they aren’t just selling snake oil; they’re selling poison. The conversion therapy industry preys on the confusion and anxiety of well-meaning parents, distilling genuine concern for their family’s well-being into fear that their children are sick. But with study after study demonstrating how ineffective and harmful these practices are, it’s clear that proponents are not motivated by concern for their patients’ well-being, but by financial gain and anti-LGBT ideology.
Many of the groups perpetuating the myth that LGBT people can and should be changed here in the United States also advocate for more extreme policies abroad. In countries like Uganda, home of the infamous "Kill the Gays" bill, these myths are being used to persecute and murder LGBT people. Though the conversion therapy industry has undertaken efforts in recent years to make its practices more palatable, especially in the United States, there is a direct connection between the dangerous premises of conversion therapy and a resurgence of global efforts to demonize LGBT people, criminalize their very existence, and incite both private and government-sponsored violence against them.
This week, as representatives of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ #BornPerfect campaign, we will bring the facts about conversion therapy to the Geneva and urge the U.N. Committee Against Torture and the U.S. State Department to help us bring this issue to the international stage. The time is long overdue for the United States and the rest of the world to address the devastation that the purveyors of these toxic practices wreak in lives of LGBT people. This week, we’ll give them the chance to end conversion therapy for good.
SAMANTHA AMES is an attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she oversees the #BornPerfect campaign to end conversion therapy. Follow NCLR's journey to Geneva by following the hashtags #BornPerfect and #EndTorture, on NCLRights.org, and on Twitter @NCLRights, @SamanthaSAmes, and @SBrinton. And feel free to share your own experiences with therapy using #BornPerfect.