It now seems like something akin to witch burning or bloodletting, but it was not all that long ago that some therapists administered electric shocks to gay men as they looked at photos of naked men in order to “cure” them of homosexuality.
It took until 1973 for the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, and until 1992 for the World Health Organization to decide that homosexuality did not belong on its register of classifiable diseases. But the overwhelming consensus now is that homosexuality is not an affliction, a crime or a choice. It’s part of who people are, not something that requires treatment or a remedy.
But, like the fabled Japanese soldiers who battled on in the jungle refusing to believe that World War II had long ended, there are some people who still cling to the notion that people who identify as homosexual can become heterosexual through “conversion therapy,” a cruel regimen that can include electroshock therapy, induced vomiting and “gay away” camps. Broadly discredited, it’s been condemned by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the National Association of School Psychologists.
Conversion therapy is, to put it simply, snake oil. But it’s not harmless snake oil. An estimated 700,000 LGBTQ people have gone through it, with many reporting lasting scars from the experience. It can reinforce anxiety and shame, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the suicide rate among young people who have gone through conversion therapy is triple those of their LGBTQ peers who have not been subjected to it.
Depression and drug abuse are other potential side effects of conversion therapy, the American Academy of Pediatrics found. The organization noted in 2009, “In the last four decades (conversion) therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure.”
So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have banned conversion therapy, as have a smattering of municipalities, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Allentown. Pennsylvania should join the states that have outlawed this debunked and pointless practice. Brian Sims, a state representative from the Philadelphia area and the Legislature’s first openly gay member, has introduced a bill banning conversion therapy in Pennsylvania, but it has not gained much traction.
Maybe it won’t in a Republican-majority General Assembly. But this is an issue that should transcend partisan affiliation. It’s about protecting young people from harm.
Peter Nunn, an Atlanta man who attempted to kill himself after being placed in conversion therapy, told NPR in April, “Conversion therapy is something that at its core is telling somebody that there’s something fundamentally broken with them and not only can it be fixed, it needs to be fixed. That’s a lot of trauma, especially for somebody that’s 15 years old or 10 years old or however old.”