Dangerous LGBTQ+ “conversion” therapies are still used in the United States and across the world. Here’s how they hurt — and what you can do to help.
Gender or sexual identity “conversion therapy” centers around the false belief that being anything other than cisgender and straight is wrong, and that it must be fixed with outside intervention.
Conversion therapies are associated with damaging mental health outcomes in LGBTQIA+ people. They’re widely debunked as having no basis in science and for refusing to acknowledge the full spectrum of human gender and sexuality.
Some of these programs might be hard to spot for what they truly are. They go by different names, including “reparative therapy,” and can incorporate verbal, physical, and sexual abuse as well as medications and even forced surgery.
People who have survived conversion therapy may experience shame, anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. They may be forced to hide their gender or sexual identity, feel unsafe in their community, and lose hope of a happy future.
LGBTQIA+ people deserve whatever resources they need to be their authentic selves and thrive. Self-acceptance, self-love, and self-compassion are possible, as is finding others who accept and love you!
“Conversion therapy” refers to the use of psychological or spiritual methods to try and change someone’s gender or sexual identity to the desired cisgender, straight orientation.
These treatments have no basis in science or fact. There’s no quantifiable proof that any such interventions can change a person’s sexual or gender identity.
Most importantly, there is nothing wrong with being lesbian, gay, bi, trans, nonbinary, or another identity. A broad spectrum of human sexuality and gender expression has always existed. It should be celebrated rather than feared, suppressed, or punished.
As the American Psychiatric Association (APA) summarized in its most recent official statement of opposition to sexual identity conversion therapy, “No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.”
All major scientific and psychiatric bodies firmly reject conversion therapy. This includes the APA, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and American College of Physicians.
Even early proponents of conversion methods have publicly apologized and disowned it, as reported in Time.
When did conversion therapy start?
Conversion therapies in the United States gained momentum during the
This treatment of LGBTQIA+ folks was often based in a religious or moral sentiment that these identities were wrong and sinful, or that only doctors knew how best to “fix” them.
Only recently has the medical establishment caught up and begun apologizing and correcting its behavior.
“Homosexuality” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a mental health diagnosis in
However, while healthcare modernizes to address the actual, unique health needs of LGBTQIA+ people, the damaging conception of gay and trans identities as mental illnesses endures.
As of 2021, LGBTQ+ conversion therapies are legal in 30 states, and have impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
What does conversion therapy look like?
The following list contains a wide range of both common and rare methods used in conversion therapy, particularly for sexual identity:
- talk therapy, aiming to find the “cause” of the person’s sexual or gender identity, or convince them their orientation is morally or spiritually wrong
- trying to change thought patterns by teaching the recipient to “redirect” thoughts about their sexual desires
- aversion therapy, such as inducing nausea or causing pain to force a negative association with sexual thoughts
- hypnosis as a means to “reprogram” the person
- verbal abuse, seeking to control the recipient’s behavior or thoughts by using shame, guilt, or fear
- prayer, such as telling the recipient they can change their orientation if they pray hard enough
- “corrective rape,” which is the horrifying use of sexual assault to try and force someone to feel heterosexual attraction
- “chemical castration” for males via hormone treatments or medications, or even removal of testicles, to artificially decrease sex drive to prevent sexual desire
Not everyone who experiences conversion therapy is there against their will. While some people, often minors, are forced by parents or communities, adults may seek it out on their own accord to try to hold on to a marriage, please their family, or correct perceived sinful thoughts and behavior.
Regardless of the situation, the main reasons someone is propelled to conversion therapy is often shame and stigma around one’s gender or sexual identity.
Experiences with conversion therapy are associated with detrimental, long-term mental health effects in LGBTQIA+ people.
Those who survive conversion therapy have already had to deal with negative thoughts and beliefs surrounding their gender or sexual identity.
Conversion programs may then encourage and worsen these feelings, sometimes adding components of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.
Then, because conversion isn’t an actual scientific practice, people may feel even worse because the therapy “didn’t work.”
One key 2006 research article studied the stories of 14 people who underwent conversion therapy or ex-gay ministries. The study authors identified that lesbians and gay men usually sought conversion programs out of “desperation,” and that conversion efforts exacerbated their self-loathing.
UCLA’s Williams Institute found in its 2019 report that LGB youth who had undergone conversion therapy were nearly twice as likely to consider and attempt suicide than those who hadn’t experienced conversion methods.
Similarly, the Family Acceptance Project, run through San Francisco State University, found in 2018 that suicide attempts were more than double (48%) among LGBT adults whose parents had “tried to change their sexual orientation” compared with LGBT adults who reported no conversion efforts (22%).
Other associated outcomes included “lower levels of self-esteem, social support and life satisfaction, and lower levels of education and income in young adulthood.”
Debunking conversion myths by spreading the facts and making these discredited practices illegal is part of a larger project of improving social acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people.
Helping gay, bi, trans, nonbinary folks, and others thrive requires many varied approaches, including:
There’s a huge network of organizations and nonprofits advocating for, and providing services to, LGBTQIA+ people. Resources can and do save lives!
You can read more about conversion therapy from these resources:
- The National Center for Lesbian Rights: Born Perfect: Ending Conversion Therapy
- The Trevor Project: About Conversion Therapy
- GLAAD: What Is Conversion Therapy?
- Human Rights Campaign: The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity
The major organizations and nonprofits listed below have extensive resources for LGBTQIA+ people as well as content for families and friends. You can find everything from introductory information to hotlines, recommended reading, and potential support groups:
Rather than being based on evidence, conversion therapy is instead motivated by societal prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people, and operates on the false belief these identities are wrong or sinful.
While there’s no scientific literature supporting conversion programs — which can include verbal, physical, and sexual abuse — the practice remains legal in 30 U.S. states, and is in use across the world.
Due in part to social stigma that results in discrimination and violence, LGBTQIA+ people are at increased risk of mental health issues, addiction, homelessness, and unemployment, among other adverse outcomes.
Conversion therapies double down on the idea that lesbian, gay, bi, and trans identities are “bad,” endangering both people’s happiness and their lives.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being LGBTQIA+! You deserve the right to feel safe in your own skin, and in your own community.
Donald Collins, MA, is a writer and trans educator based in Los Angeles. His articles and essays have appeared in VICE, Salon, and Bitch magazine, among others. He is the co-author of the award-winning 2017 memoir “At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces.” He’s particularly interested in the experiences of queer and marginalized people in healthcare systems, trans youth, and America’s chronic illness epidemic. You can find his website here.