During a recent media interview about conversion therapy, the reporter I was speaking with on the phone cited a known religious “ex-gay” organization operating out of Vancouver, Canada, where I live, and said that its leader claimed they were “not practicing conversion therapy,” but merely “helping homosexuals to not have sex,” to “remain celibate.” The reporter then asked me what I thought about this statement.
I’ll admit that in the moment, I had trouble articulating my full horror. Nevertheless, I told the reporter what I know to be true, which is that few, if any, organizations today would even admit to practicing “conversion therapy,” so in this sense it was not surprising to me that they would deny practicing what is now considered to be a universally debunked form of “therapy” to change sexual orientation. My former psychiatrist would have never admitted to practicing “conversion therapy” on me throughout my own six years of “therapy,” yet that is precisely what he was doing.
“Conversion therapies,” I know from experience, occur across a spectrum of experiences, and can range from electric shock treatment and aversion therapy, to the more benign “talking therapy,” and all of them outwardly geared toward “changing” sexual orientation—though even this language obfuscates their real intent, since in truth they are technically less about “changing sexual orientation” than they are about “stopping homosexuality” (do they ever try and “change” heterosexuality to homosexuality?). Thrown into the mix by many religious “ex-gay” organizations is an effort to try and realign a person’s apparent “gender confusion” in order for them to live “according to scripture” (males being masculine; females being feminine; both sexes coupling only in heterosexual marriages). The magic (toxic) ingredient in all of these “treatments,” whether one wants to call them conversion therapies or not, is shame. Shame about one’s homosexuality or gender identity is what leads people (or causes parents to send their kids) to these treatments; shame is what imprisons them.
With the demise of Exodus International, the world’s largest “ex-gay” organization, and virtually every leading medical and mental health organization now denouncing all forms of conversion therapy, many of these organizations have subsequently reframed their methods from claiming to “change” sexual orientation to the softer but (in my opinion) no less onerous “helping homosexuals to not have sex.” Nomenclature changes; shame remains.
Helping anyone to not have sex specifically because they are gay is not the same as not having sex because, oh, let’s say, a person chooses to not engage with anyone on a sexual level, gay or straight. At various times in my own adult life (er, during my post-conversion therapy years) I have remained celibate—or maybe just single with no sex—because I chose to focus my energies elsewhere (or I just couldn’t deal with the whole “dating scene”). But at no time during any of these times has my choice to not have sex been precipitated by the belief that to be gay or homosexual is a sin and I should therefore not act on those desires—that I should “love the sinner” (myself), but “hate the sin” (sex with other men). Shame was never driving my choices.
I have never heard of any organization that “helps heterosexuals to not have sex” specifically because their “heterosexual sex” was immoral. Hiding behind the religious veneer of “no sex before marriage” never cut it for me either. Recent same-sex marriage laws have obviously complicated many religious arguments, since previously they would have simply forbidden “sex outside marriage,” therefore de facto precluding all gays from having sex. Now that gays can marry in Canada and the U.S. and in many other countries, forbidding sex outside marriage no longer necessary prevents or precludes gays from having sex—they can simply first marry. But that doesn’t solve the “religious problem.” What to do about all that “gay sex”?
No longer strapping gay people into chairs and shocking them with electricity but merely “helping” them to not have sex may sound like progress, it may no longer sound like conversion therapy, and therein lies the rub. Looking for something called “conversion therapy,” or that anyone admits to being called “conversion therapy,” will always shield the culprit. When we talk about conversion therapy we are talking about an ideology, not any one “type” of treatment. All of these scenarios, and more, are bound by the same awful shame, and the same shameful ideology, which says that being gay is a sin or disease (abnormality, error, etc.) and should be “changed,” or at least not acted on. In other words, if you can’t change ’em, at least make sure they stop having sex.