By: Guest Contributor Isidora Roskic, MA candidate in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University.
With the 2020 election results finalized, the Biden-Harris administration could bring promising advancements for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. While Trump’s Republican platform was once referred to as one of the “worst platforms in terms of LGBT issues,” President Biden’s policy proposals hold great prospect for real change. According to his Plan to Advance LGBTQ+ Equality in America and Around the World, banning so-called “conversion therapy” presently stands as one of the government’s top priorities.
Gay conversion therapy (GCT), otherwise referred to as “reparative therapy,” is the pseudoscientific practice of attempting to alter one’s sexual orientation or gender identity through spiritual, psychological and/or physical intervention. Experimental “treatments” include lobotomies, testicular tissue transplants, chemical castration, and aversive conditioning: application of electric shock to hands/genitals, and administration of nausea-inducing drugs during the presentation of homoerotic stimuli.
Conversion therapy survivor, Sam Brinton, opened up about the horrors of undergoing sexual orientation change efforts: “The lingering effects of the trauma and abuse I experienced will take a lifetime to heal,” Brinton shared. “I struggled with anxiety and depression and can count myself among the number of LGBTQ+ young people who have attempted suicide.”
In fact, a 2020 national survey on LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. found that youth GCT victims reported twice the rate of suicide attempts over the last year in comparison to non-victims. Conversion therapy also left youth 3 times more likely to use drugs and experience homelessness.
While major mental health organizations have discredited the practice, UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute estimates that 700,000 LGBTQ+ people have undergone GCT in the United States, approximately 350,000 of them having been under the age of 18. Today, at least 10% of U.S LGBTQ+ youth report receiving ‘reparative therapy.’ One survivor anonymously revealed the unsettling consequences of undergoing reparative treatment by stating “We were no longer people at the end of the program.” Another, Mike Dorn, recently garnered public support after sharing his conversion therapy story through a series of videos posted on TikTok. Some of the victim testimonials provided to the Pan American Health Organization suggested many minors involuntarily received ‘treatment.’ Exposing youth to conversion therapy against their will not only threatens their mental and physical wellbeing but also strips them of autonomy and decision-making power.
With over 2 million sexual minority youth currently living in the United States, the threat of gay conversion therapy constitutes a human rights crisis. Yet, little has been done by the states or federal government to address this issue.
Politically, the moment to act is now.
In 2019, Rep. Ted Lieu and Sen. Patty Murray took a fundamental step towards ending gay conversion therapy by introducing the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act (TFPA) which would federally ban all for-profit conversion therapy by classifying it as fraud under the Federal Trade Commission Act. Despite receiving overwhelming public support and gaining 219 co-sponsors, no action was taken by the House of Representatives or the Senate to review or vote on the bill. As the 116th United States Congress has adjourned, the bill is dead.
Nevertheless, the changing political climate paired with the new president’s favourable position on LGBTQ+ issues provides a promising environment in which the subject of GCT can be re-introduced and adequately addressed. Biden has publicly condemned the practice of gay conversion therapy, stating that it is “deeply harmful, highly unscientific, and often leads to trauma.” The President has also acknowledged the inadequacy of relying solely on State bans.
In fact, only four States – Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York – have fully banned the practice. In addition to these four, fourteen more states and U.S. territories, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, currently have statutes in place that protect youth under the age of 18 from receiving GCT through licensed health care providers. Unfortunately, state statutory conversion therapy bans fail to adequately protect youth by only applying laws to licensed mental health care professionals and overlooking the services of religious and spiritual institutions and/or individuals. In fact, a 2019 report conducted by UCLA estimated that 57,000 LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-17 are at risk of receiving ‘reparative’ treatment from a religious leader and/or spiritual provider in the United States before they turn 18. To raise greater concern, the remaining 32 states have no comprehensive bans criminalizing the practice or prosecuting those that offer it.
Thankfully, President Biden’s promise to enact the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act is a powerful first step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it’s important to remind ourselves that the fight for equality is much larger than a political promise. Now is the time to come together to make a change for and protect the human rights of current and future LGBTQ+ youth.
Raise awareness on the detrimental practice by participating in the #LoveDoesntNeedACure and #BornPerfect social media campaigns.
If you are a survivor comfortable with sharing your story, educate and empower others by using National Centre For Lesbian Rights and It Gets Better Project to speak out about your experiences. Survivors can also access helpful resources through Beyond Ex-Gay, Truth Wins Out, and Trevor Space.
“SCOTUS APRIL 2015 LGBTQ 54663” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Gay Rights are Human Rights” by ep_jhu is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“I don’t need conversion therapy! I need my rights!” by ninachildish is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0