On May 25, Hawaii became the 12th state to ban the use of “conversion therapy” on minors. So-called conversion therapy is a collection of therapeutic and counseling practices aimed at curing, changing, redeeming, repairing, or altering someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. Hawaii’s legislation prohibits psychiatrists, social workers, licensed counselors, and marriage and family therapists from practicing conversion therapy on children. The new law, though, won’t prevent religious and pastoral counselors from offering certain forms of sexual orientation change efforts or gender identity therapies.
I have followed the efforts to ban conversion therapy with intense interest. I spent the last two years conducting archival research on the history of conversion therapy. I traversed the country, looking to understand the complex history of these controversial therapeutic and counseling practices. To say that I’ve been continually shocked with what I find would be an understatement. In archives and special collections around the nation, I have come across a wide-range of sources that illuminate conversion therapy’s history. From my vantage point, as a professional historian, I must wrestle with what these sources tell us about to past in order to understand the present.
The sources, to be blunt, tell a dark history, one replete with homophobia, experimental medical procedures, hate, and suicide. The most powerful sources are the most difficult to read. Transcripts of therapy sessions from the 1940s and 1950s, for example, underscore the desperation that some men and women felt to change their sexual desires. They speak of the horrors of not being able to experience life like others around them. In a period of excessive conformity (and before the formation of gay and lesbian rights organizations), it was crucial for these individuals to fit in. In a limited way, these men and women sought out therapy in order to change how they felt about members of the same sex.
More heartbreaking are stories where parents made their children undergo some form of conversion therapy. My research in special collections at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Minnesota has revealed the willingness of medically trained psychiatrists to treat children with same-sex desires and attractions. In the late 1940s and the early 1950s, parents authorized doctors to subject their children to a range of therapeutic interventions that we would now view as barbaric.
For example, ice-pick lobotomies were an especially popular medical procedure on homosexual children in parts of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. This procedure involved inserting a metal lance into the patient's prefrontal cortex, often by holding up the eyelid to create a passage to the brain. Lobotomies caused lifelong cognitive damage, but for parents of children with same-sex desires, success was judged by whether or not their homosexual attractions and behaviors ceased.
History, at its best, provides crucial context for understanding the present. As I've conducted research, I can't help but connect parts of the above history with recent debates over banning conversion therapy. I have been particularly drawn to arguments that socially and culturally conservative parents should be allowed to raise their children in accordance to their worldview. The parents who brought their children to lobotomists believed the same thing. These parents also probably thought that they were doing a favor for their children. But, as many of us know too well, parents can make mistakes. That's why laws banning conversion therapy on minors are crucial for protecting children.
When I first started my research, I wanted to stay as far away from current public policy debates as possible. I didn't want my views on politics to shape how I interpret the past. Over time, I've realized that this was an unrealistic expectation for myself. Just as the past informs the present, our contemporary world shapes how we view history. The history of conversion therapy has forced me to come face-to-face with this realization.
Pride Month is a time to highlight the history, and contemporary experiences, of sexual- and gender-variant people and groups. For historians, though, it is not enough to simply discuss those who have been excluded from textbooks. Rather, we must do better to underscore systemic inequalities related to sex, gender, and sexual identity.
Although it is important to celebrate civil rights victories, we must challenge triumphant narratives of progress, as the fight for equality is not yet won. The recent bans on conversion therapy are part of this continued struggle. These bans are steps in the right direction for LGBTQ equality. It is my belief as a historian, however, that the struggle will continue into the foreseeable future.
CHRIS BABITS is a Ph.D. candidate and Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow at the University of Texas, Austin.