The idea that a person can “change” their sexual orientation has been steeped in controversy for decades. Historically, therapies aimed at trying to change a person from homosexual to heterosexual—often called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy—rose in prominence primarily as a religious and socio-political counter-movement against the gay rights movement of the 20th century. More recently, academics even coined the term “sexual orientation change efforts,” or SOCE. Virtually every leading psychological and psychiatric organization has denounced SOCE, and its traumatic effects have, by now, also been well documented. On May 17, 2012 the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a regional office of the World Health Organization, issued a Position Statement on the subject: “‘Therapies to change sexual orientation lack medical justification and threaten health.” Noting the long-term effects of such therapies as “feelings of guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide,” the PAHO added that practitioners of these therapies should be “subject to sanctions and penalties under national legislation. These supposed conversion therapies constitute a violation of the ethical principles of health care and violate human rights that are protected by international and regional agreements.”

Today in the United States, however, only the States of New Mexico, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Vermont, New York, and the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C., have passed laws banning forms of reparative therapy on youth. In Canada, only the Provinces of Ontario and Manitoba have laws banning reparative therapy—enacted in Ontario only after a transgender youth committed suicide because they were forced to try and “change” their gender identity. In 2017, bills to ban reparative therapy for youth were filed in the legislature of several more States: Massachusetts, Florida, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. During his term in office, President Obama spoke out against the practice of reparative therapy, and up until the recent US election at least, efforts were well underway to classify reparative therapy as a fraudulent practice and illegal under the Federal Trade Commission. Newly elected Vice President Pence has been known to endorse reparative therapy.

The overall “problem” with these kinds of laws is that they do not take into account experiences such as the one described in The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, where the author, Peter Gajdics, was not in any kind of formal “reparative therapy,” but was simply under the care of a licensed psychiatrist (initially, for depression) who took it upon himself to try and “cure” Gajdics (i.e., prescribed extreme doses of psychiatric medication, used aversive techniques, and contextualized his entire therapeutic treatment and all of his life history in an effort to help convince him that he was really heterosexual). In other words, changing laws does not necessarily change hearts, and as long as the belief systems of those who treat gay (and trans) people have not altogether and radically changed, there will always be Someone out there who will think that the gay/trans person would be much happier if they could only “change.”

Self-portrait 1 year before therapy

Self-portrait 1 year into therapy.

Self-portrait 2 years into therapy.

Primal Scream, sculpted 3 years into therapy.