In his June 23, 2017 article, “It’s easy to talk about banning gay conversion therapy. But how to do it –and where’s the evidence,” writer Peter Ould, a Church of England Priest and statician, argues that there is no “substantive evidence” of harm to these “therapies.” Where is the “X causes Y” hypothesis about their danger? he argues. Where is the “clear path of evidence”? How can these “therapies” ever be outright banned, he asks, since their methods are so varied and insidious? How is it possible to ban not just one treatment model but an entire mindset? At one point in his article, Ould calls out Jayne Ozanne, a high-ranking activist in the Church of England General Synod and a survivor of “conversion therapy” who has argued against the practice by labeling it “spiritual abuse,” because he says she has no “qualification in the area of mental health.”
Ould suggests “track[ing] people through particular experiences” in order to “compare their mental health before and afterwards,” and to determine “whether harm is caused by certain actions,” namely, the various means by which these “therapies” seek to “change” sexuality. He cites one study, gleaned from the participants of a religious form of “ex-gay” therapy, which he claims offered “no statistically significant evidence of harm.” He concludes, therefore, that individuals such as Ozanne—and by this I have to assume he means all survivors of “conversion therapy”—can offer nothing more than an “unqualified anecdote.”
In discussing the probability of harm caused by these “therapies,” he references the emergence of autism following vaccinations as one example of how consecutive events does not in itself signify causation. In other words, if a person leaves “conversion therapy” depressed, or suffering through any other “mental health symptoms,” there can be no way of verifying that it was the therapy itself that caused these issues—perhaps the person was prone to depression prior to entering treatment.
Ould even points to authorities that have attempted to distinguish between the therapeutic intention of “conversion therapy,” and the therapists who enact such “cures,” claiming that perhaps it is not the therapy itself that causes harm but the “generic abuses of practice,” such as a therapist’s boundary violation. Maybe, in this thread of logic, an ethical therapist could proceed confidently, without threat of serious harm to the person whose sexual orientation is being “changed.”
In a somewhat abrupt about-face to his argument, Ould goes on to ask whether treatment that produces “no statistically significant change” to sexual orientation is reason enough to ban these therapies. Should they be banned simply because “they don’t work,” because they have “a low success rate,” much in the same way, he writes, that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t always “work”?
Ould concludes his argument, and article, by stating that these are “all complicated issues and deserve serious engagement,” such as “proper longitudinal studies”; he discourages the use of “soundbite, anecdote and emotion,” and to “move the debate away from relying on self-reported harm which is a nebulous concept,” in favour of “rigorous and consistent research, applying proper scientific standards.”
At the outset, I must admit that in considering everything Ould has argued, conjectured, and concluded, I was left confused, saddened, and angered. Part of me doesn’t want to even give Ould’s argument my time of day, much less mentally tread through the murky waters of his obfuscated logic. I have to think of Escher's sketches of staircases folding in on themselves to the point that we don't know which way is up from down. In fact, for every article like Ould’s there are 10 more just like his coming up the rear, all written on the (cloaked) presumption that there is nothing inherently wrong or harmful with “conversion therapy”—that it is “innocent until proven guilty.” I can’t, nor do I even want to, respond to all of these kinds of articles. Yet here I am, wondering to myself why, in 2017, it would even be necessary to conduct “longitudinal studies” or “rigorous and consistent research” into these so-called “therapies,” let alone conjecture about their supposed “harms”?
Even hypothesizing that there might be a difference between the practice of “conversion therapy” and the therapists who enact it—that it might not be the “therapy” itself that is unethical but an “unethical” therapist’s use of this kind of “treatment” model—is, to me, like saying there might be an ethical way to rape someone. Or that it might not be the rape itself that is unethical, but the means by which a therapist rapes a person.
And finally, if being a gay woman who actually underwent “conversion therapy” does not bestow upon Ozanne a fundamental “qualification” to speak out against the harmful effects of such treatments to her own “mental health,” I am not sure what will. Why must we wait for so-called “experts” to tell us about ourselves? How can one person’s testimony about something as personal as sexuality ever be reduced to “soundbite,” an “anecdote”? Why should talking with emotion about such emotionally-charged issues as depression and thoughts of suicide be “avoided,” rendered “a nebulous concept”?
I spent most of the first two years after my own six years in “conversion therapy” alone, wandering streets shell-shocked, ghost-like, practically catatonic. It is not so much that I was suicidal—as I thought I was already dead. How could anyone not notice the hole that had been blasted through my gut, I often wondered at this time, if I thought anything at all. Mostly, my mind was frozen, unable to process or think through what had happened to me in the “therapy,” find words to explain my experience. Neat, convenient labels like “conversion” or “reparative” therapy might have helped me encapsulate my personal nightmare, but they were all still foreign concepts to me back then. All I knew in 1995, and in 1996, in 1997, was that I’d spent six years actively believing that I was changing my sexuality from homosexual to heterosexual—not just theoretically, but experientially, that I was actually becoming a heterosexual man, or at least was returning to my “innate heterosexuality” (my former psychiatrist’s words). Yet here I was on the other side of treatment and nothing about my homosexuality—the erotic desires within my body—had ever been altered or changed. What had I been doing with myself those six years? How could I have believed this kind of lie about myself? No doubt I was only just beginning to mentally thaw out, or deprogram, from the “therapy,” to separate the lies from the truth. Eventually, I found a few words, and then several more, that seemed to accurately reflect my truth.
The World Health Organization has written that, “‘Reparative’ or ‘conversion therapies’ have no medical indication and represent a severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons. They constitute unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties.”
The American Psychiatric Association has written that it “opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or conversion therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that a patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.”
The American Psychological Association has written that, “mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation due to a lack of evidence that such change is possible and the potential for such efforts to harm the patient’s mental health.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; the American Academy of Pediatrics; the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy; the American College of Physicians; the American Counseling Association; the American Medical Association; the American Psychoanalytic Association; the American School Counselor Association; the American School Health Association; the National Association of Social Workers—all of these leading health organizations have denounced any effort to “change” sexual orientation, and reaffirmed that attempts to do so could result in serious health risks.
“Conversion therapy” occurs across a spectrum of homophobic experiences—albeit, as an extreme example—much in the same way that “living in the closet” did for many people just one or two generations ago. Nothing much has changed in this respect, since the primary goal of both “conversion therapy” and “the closet” is to eradicate homosexuals off the face of the planet, or at least to hide them away from the rest of the so-called “straight” world. While “conversion therapies” have no doubt left countless victims in their wake, “the closet” enacted (and enacts, still, for many, to this day) a similar fate of trauma through threat of shame or fear of retribution, religious and familial persecution, rejection, condemnation, isolation, even, in decades past, criminality or psychiatric diagnosis and institution.
It took me several years to understand that I had left the “therapy” dissociated and depersonalized, but this is precisely how conversion therapies “work”: the patient dissociates themselves from everything they believe is “gay” or “homosexual,” and in so doing, separates themselves from their own desires. “Homosexuality” becomes not so much what is within, but what is outside—“the gay world,” even “gay sex,” that they can then “leave behind,” or “move beyond.” It doesn’t matter an iota that their desires, their own same sex desires, remain within. As long as they don’t act on those desires, and only “act heterosexual” in the outside world, all is well. “Conversion therapies” promote mental illness, or at least mental un-wellness, because they necessitate dissociation, depersonalization, and compartmentalization. “All is well” until all comes crumbling down. And the fact that some, even many, people claim to have “changed” from gay to straight—that they are able to live out their lives in a permanent state of dissociation—does not make it any less harmful. It only makes it all too sadly common.
If Ould, or anyone like him, requires “evidence of harm” of these “therapies,” or, for that matter, a life lived “in the closet,” he should look no further than to generations of people who have spoken, written, cried out about and even marched against the crippling effects of living in shame, cut off from their true selves, particularly during the immediate post-Stonewall era—because that is precisely what “conversion therapy” promotes: lies, shame, dissociation, inauthenticity, not to mention a host of other forms of suffering. Take your pick. For “evidence of harm,” Ould, and others, should start by reading any one of the thousands of books written over a period of decades by any number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or queer people whose lives were left decimated by the fall out of homophobia or transphobia.
Read their struggles. Hear their voices. Remember their legacies.
Ould is looking for “statistical evidence” about the supposed harm caused by “conversion therapy,” yet the world has already offered up literally thousands of books from which we can all locate such proof. Evidence of the breathtaking cruelty of, and consequences from, years of deceit, rejection, and shame can be found in real life writing—not anecdotal or nebulous emotion, but hard-won testimony. Millions of words contained in thousands of books have already been formed out of the mortar of tears shed from living a lie, trying to become what one isn’t, while hoping for a better life, one lived in truth, and authenticity, wholeness, free from shame. Evidence of the same awful intention of these “therapies” can be found in the tombstones of books left in the wake of lives lost to AIDS. If words spoken to us from these graves cannot help us out of the madness of twisting people into something that they are not by means of sexuality abuse, identity assault, and spiritual torture—which is what I have now learned, first hand, these so-called “conversion therapies” to actually be, beneath their convenient euphemisms—then I am not sure what will.