When I founded Truth Wins Out in 2006, the myth that one could “pray away the gay” was a central part of the Religious Right’s strategy to demonize and legislate against LGBT people. In less than a decade, this elaborate hoax is in ruins — with only hard-core dead-enders peddling this manufactured lie.
In 2006 my organization was battling Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out program, which was a traveling road show that featured “ex-gay” activists. This program dissolved years ago after it stopped making money and attendance dwindled. We were also at war with Exodus International, which is now defunct after the group’s leader admitted that conversion therapy does not work and that 99.9 percent of clients were not changing their sexual orientation.
I am still in periodic contact with the “ex-gay” antagonists of yesteryear. Usually it is in the form of randomly stumbling upon their Facebook posts. One former “ex-gay” leader writes about how he is in love with the man he married. Another emotes on the joy he had when he came out to his son and found acceptance. Yet another posts on his journey coming out of the closet and his entrance into the world of dating.
The “ex-gay” industry is a shambles — albeit one that has left a trail of blood, pain, tragedy, and tears. No serious person promotes this charade — and those who do are viewed as as backward and delusional. The future is bleak for practitioners of this psychological voodoo.
For the unfamiliar, conversion therapy is a pseudoscience that blames homosexuality on molestation or bad parenting. Specifically, the practice claims — without evidence — that a rift between a child and a same-sex parent can lead to a child rejecting that parent and his or her gender role. At puberty this leads to sexualizing the same sex. Conversion therapy seeks to reverse this alleged process through a combination of prayer, talk therapy, and creating nonsexual same-sex friendships. It also includes masculinity exercises for men, such as touch football and drinking Gatorade, and lipstick seminars for girls.
Conversion therapy for minors is now prohibited in the District of Columbia, New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Illinois. There are several legislatures that will follow the lead of these states. The effort to protect children from such mental anguish is bipartisan, with two conservative Republican governors — Bruce Rauner of Illinois and Chris Christie of New Jersey — signing conversion therapy bans into law.
In June the Southern Poverty Law Center won a monumental legal victory over a notorious conversion therapy racket in New Jersey. A jury found Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing guilty of consumer fraud. JONAH had misled its clients by falsely promising that they could help them change their sexual orientation from gay to straight. The trial exposed the outlandish tactics used by JONAH-affiliated therapists, which included abusive, bizarre, and unscientific practices such as having clients undress and touch their genitals and reliving painful childhood moments in failed efforts to turn them into heterosexuals.
This is why every respected medical and mental health association in the nation condemns conversion therapy. This includes the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association.
In the latest catastrophe for the “ex-gay” industry, a new government report was released this month that warned about the dangers of conversion therapy for minors. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s report examined the evidence and concluded there is no efficacy for conversion therapy and it can lead to harmful consequences. Included in the report was a consensus statement by the American Psychological Association that explained the potential harms of conversion therapy and pointed out that being gay is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality.
Unfortunately, as long as there is prejudice and discrimination, some people will be determined to change who they are. Fitting in and being loved and accepted are powerful motivators — even if the effort is a fool’s errand that will inevitably lead to failure.
Some people, particularly parents, feel conversion therapy is safe and there is no harm if their child gives it a try. In reality, such rejection of self can be psychologically devastating and leave lasting mental scars that must be undone with real therapy. The single worst decision a parent can make is forcing their child into conversion therapy.
Still, a demand often fueled by religious fervor inevitably creates a pool of religious ideologues or greedy practitioners who bilk desperate and vulnerable clients with promises of healing or an elusive cure. This is why conversion therapy must be banned for minors in all 50 states. I urge everyone to get behind such noble efforts that protect teenagers and put conversion con artists out of business.
We must also be vigilant to ensure the “ex-gay” industry does not continue to wage this unholy war abroad. As they lose at home, they are shifting operations to more favorable terrain overseas. Many of these countries lack the freedom of speech and assembly that we take for granted. When coming out is criminalized and those who speak out risk jail or violence, the disinformation peddled by conversion therapists can flower. We must creatively and assertively strategize with our partners abroad to meet this challenge by fighting lies with truth — just as we did at home.
In America, the right wing’s favored antigay strategy — the “ex-gay” industry — has fallen on hard times. But it up to us to finish the job we started and ensure no gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender child is abused by charlatans posing as medical experts.