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The History of Conversion Therapy

The History of Conversion Therapy

LGBT activism has many frontiers, and conversion therapy is an ongoing battleground from culture to politics and daily life. 

Gay, lesbian, and trans people have been subjected to such attempts to “reverse” or “undo” their alternative sexual behavior, and only in recent years has the medical community acknowledged the problems with these so-called “therapies.”

The history is complex and messy, with plenty of emotion on either side of the argument. But no matter where you stand, it’s important to understand how conversion therapy works – or doesn’t work – along with the evidence and examples that lead us to a clear conclusion. 

Conversion Therapy Background

It’s hard to imagine a world without LGBT advocacy, considering the widespread support from government and medical institutions today. However, it wasn’t long ago that gay people were categorically ostracized, and practices like conversion therapy were rampant.

What exactly constitutes this term? Here are a few examples.

  • Talk therapy to discuss and analyze behaviors to change them
  • Aversion therapies associating shocks or drugs with certain attractions
  • Medical practices like hormone therapies to create biological alterations
  • Religious approaches using prayer, community, and spiritual advisory
  • More severe practices like verbal or physical abuse

Conversion therapy has a very broad definition, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when it began. Since most societies were deeply religious in centuries past, most efforts to alter sexuality stemmed from these institutions.

However, non-religious forms of conversion therapy also emerged as society grew more secular. 19th-century psychologists from the Freud school of thought pushed for methods like hypnosis and analysis to reverse homosexual behavior, with mixed results.

In today’s world, conversion therapies are less common and more humane, but they still represent a point of contention for many in the LGBT community and beyond.

The Central Debate

Conversion therapy is controversial for a few reasons

Firstly, the practice assumes that sexual attraction is not a matter of genetics, but due to post-natal environmental factors. This is an ongoing debate in the medical community, as a “gay gene” has yet to be discovered. Figuring out whether sexual attraction is inherited or learned is fundamental to the conversion conversation.

From there, conversion therapy asserts that non-heterosexual lifestyles are harmful or immoral to individuals and society. This is where LGBT rights advocates step up their fight to defend the “live and let live” lifestyle and argue that young people should not be subjected to therapies to change their sexual behavior.

The final layer of the debate is about the legitimacy of conversion therapy methods themselves. Some argue that it’s pure pseudoscience with no evidence to suggest it even works. Others say that conversion therapy isn’t only ineffective, but also harms young people, causing them to feel rejected and leading to more harmful behaviors down the line.

On the other hand, many religious groups point to testimonials of people who voluntarily partake in conversion therapies and suggest they live happier lives as a result. Not all therapies are forced, and some people seek them out as a matter of personal choice.

Restrictions, Bans, and Regulations 

In many parts of the world, conversion therapy methods have been limited or banned entirely, especially for young people who do not consent to the practice.

A major victory for the movement occurred in 1973, when homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Charles Silverstein, featured in a recent conversion therapy movie, led a presentation to the APA that turned the tides forever. 

This set the stage for conversion therapy to be questioned as a viable practice, since homosexual behavior was no longer considered a mental defect.

Since then, many organizations have stood against conversion therapies of all kinds, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association.

In terms of legislation, California was the first state to ban the practices in 2012. Since then, 20 states have banned conversion therapy outright, and dozens of municipalities in other states have passed similar acts.

This is good news for LGBT activism in America, but on a global scale, efforts are only just beginning. Many countries still classify homosexuality as illegal, and actively discriminate through law and culture. 

The Future of Conversion Therapy

There is no shortage of controversy surrounding conversion therapy, and it’s an emotionally charged subject on either side of the aisle. 

The medical community and Washington D.C. has made it clear that conversion therapy is not approved, while many conservative communities and states hold strong beliefs. 

With political and cultural tensions peaking in America, the conversion therapy discussion will likely continue, so it’s best to have your facts in order moving forward. Do your research, talk with real people, and see if you can evolve your own opinions on the matter.



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