Why We Should Ban Conversion Therapy

[Content note: suicide, transphobia, abuse]

I wrote this article for the Daily Dot about conversion therapy. Please note that I did not write and do not endorse its headline as it appears at the Daily Dot.

At the close of a year that saw both incredible gains for transgender people and a number of tragic acts of transphobic violence, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen from Ohio,committed suicide on Sunday. In a note that she had preemptively scheduled to post on her Tumblr, she described the bigotry she had faced from her parents, who tried to isolate her from her friends and the Internet as punishment. They also sent her to Christian therapists who shamed her for her gender identity.

In response, the Transgender Human Rights Institute created a Change.org petition on December 31. The petition asksPresident Obama, Senator Harry Reid, and Representative Nancy Pelosi to enact Leelah’s Law to ban transgender conversion therapy. Less than two days later, the petition has already gained 160,000 signatures and made the rounds online. It may be the most attention that conversion therapy has gotten outside of activist circles for some time.

Aside from LGBTQ activists, secular activists, and mental healthcare professionals seeking to promote evidence-based practice, not many people seem to speak up about conversion therapy, or understand much about it. Most discussions of it that I come across deal with therapies that attempt to “reverse” sexual orientation from gay to straight or to eradicate same-sex attraction. However, conversion therapy also includes practices aimed at transgender people with the goal of forcing them to identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

In her suicide note, Alcorn wrote, “My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to Christian therapists (who were all very biased), so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.” Although she did not elaborate further about her experience in therapy, it’s clear that the treatment goal was not to help Alcorn reduce her risk of suicide, accept herself, recover from depression, or develop healthy coping skills that would help her stay safe in such an oppressive environment. The treatment goal was to force Leelah Alcorn to identify as a boy and to fulfill her parents’ and therapists’ ideas about what being a Christian means.

This is not mental healthcare. This is abuse.

Read the rest here.

Why We Should Ban Conversion Therapy

6 thoughts on “Why We Should Ban Conversion Therapy

  1. Ed

    Leelah Alcorn`s suicide is heartbreaking and the way she was treated was so pointlessly cruel.

    Weird how fundamentalists` theories of psychology are basically mid-20th Century mistakes (psychoanalytic or behaviorist) with religion tacked on. They say our sexuality is this way or that way because of a domineering mother, weak father, too much masturbation, boarding school, pornography, the shower in gym class—or whatever the freakin hell–plus blah blah, something about Jesus.

    It’s like a radio preacher meets the cranky old analyst from a Woody Allen movie.

    Ban this quackery now! Sure it will continue underground, but if they can’t openly advertise it or practice it without risking their careers, the likely victim pool gets smaller.

    The last bastion of it will be conservative clergy, though. Even if they have some therapy or counseling education, they aren’t dependent on being licenced in order to do “therapy” on their own congregations because they can label it spiritual guidance or something.

  2. 2

    “However, controlled research on the effects of conversion therapy is virtually impossible due to ethical constraints—you cannot randomly assign someone to undergo a potentially harmful, useless treatment.”

    Perhaps the next best thing would be correlational studies and mediation analyses. With the former, we could determine if Conversion Therapy is a predictor for reduced mental health, depression, suicidality, etc.

    But what if it turns out that this is the case and critics argue that the conclusion doesn’t refute the effectiveness of Conversion Therapy because correlation =/= causation? That’s where Mediation Analysis Studies come in. With it, it can help us determine why there is a correlation between Conversion Therapy with reduced mental health by identifying other variables that explain it (the mediator). It wouldn’t surprise me if Homophobia and Transphobia are the mediators.

    Of course, we can also remind them that while not all correlations involve causation, all causation involve correlations. Thus, if conversion therapy really does increase mental health on “sexually or gender identity confused” patients by “repairing” them, then it should be correlated positively (that is, directly) with mental health and negatively (that is, inversely) with depression and suicidality.

    This isn’t to say that correlational studies and mediation analyses can confirm causal claims (because they can’t). But they can at least disconfirm some.

  3. 3

    It absolutely shouldn’t exist, but how do you go about banning it exactly? Anyone with any kind of license could be stripped of their license, that’s one step. Social services and courts could start to consider it abusive to send a minor to conversion therapy. There are no doubt other steps that can be taken in the direction, but actually banning it seems impossible.

  4. 4

    Insofar as “conversion therapy” is medical quackery, the existing law on the question should take care of it.

    Maybe the right test case without the added problems of piling on more law?

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