Trigger Warning for Survivors: This article, while careful writing was used in a way to try and protect survivors of conversion therapy, it is still going to possibly trigger readers who are survivors. If you decide to read, you may remember experiences with people described in one or more of the below groups. Please take care of yourself. If you are already pensive or full of anxiety reading this trigger warning, it is ok to walk away. If you need help in processing your past or the feelings you may be having right now, confidentially contact me through the Facebook messenger button on this page, or check out the Trevor Project’s helpful resources page. You are not alone. You are strong, beautiful, and loved.
As the film “Pray Away” has uncovered, 700,000 people in the United States alone have gone through Conversion Therapy with even more people being abused every day. Conversion therapy manifests in different ways. Everyone is familiar with the horror stories of physical aversion (cognitive-behavioral) therapies of trying to force the brain to associate negative stimuli with “unwanted” sexual or gender identity thoughts. This includes things like popping wrists with rubber bands, shooting ammonia sticks into nostrils, physical abuse, and in not so long ago electroshock therapy.
We are now becoming more aware of the pastoral and peer-based approaches to conversion therapy as well. Examples of this are where religious leaders and peers use toxic theology and shame-based stigma to manipulate people to convert or “transform” who they are into what these people expect of them.
Whether conversion therapy manifests in the professional, pastoral, or peer-based sense, it is all based on the idea that being LGBTQ+ is disordered and must be fixed; that a person can, through some method or counseling, “convert” their way of thinking and core sense of self. It is time for this lie to stop abusing children and stealing away the lives of adults in the LGBTQ+ community.
Let’s take a look at the everyday face of conversion therapy:
The “Professional” Imposition
This is the person who has their own office, maybe a few degrees on the wall or framed behind the desk. They are disarming in their charm and ability to put us at ease. But don’t forget, even if they don’t claim to be a “conversion therapist” if they are willing to “treat” you for “unwanted homosexuality” or gender identity to convert (transform, grow out of, heal, find freedom from, etc.) they fit the literal definition of “conversion therapy.”
How this form of conversion therapy manifests: These counselors ignore that every professional mental organization has declared sexual orientation change and gender identity change efforts as harmful. This group of counselors chooses to perpetuate harm instead of helping people come to terms with the beautiful LGBTQ+ person they are. Conversion therapy subtly imposes and manipulates clients to scapegoat others and their family into negative stereotypes for a problem that isn’t a problem. They steer LGBTQ+ clients into a forced heteronormative role. This role may feel better for a time because the underlying self-hatred is numbed with “professional answers” and affirmed instead of addressed and healed.
Conversion therapy destroys families, kills the core sense of self, and doesn’t last. The only thing that does last is the terrible consequences conversion therapy brings about in an LGBTQ+ person’s life.
The only people seeking professional counselors to change their sexual orientation or gender identity are children forced into it by parents, or adults themselves who have bought into toxic theology and fear-based stigma. When the counselor also comes from a place of cultural bigotry and toxic theology, that’s the only time conversion therapy in a licensed counselors office happens.
Conversion therapy to minors must be banned since they do not have a legal right to refuse and must be protected. Adults must be given the truth about conversion therapy and resources to come to terms with the reality that you can be a healthy, whole, LGBTQ+ person.
The Bible Thumping, Pew Jumping, Hellfire Threatening, Demon Hunters
For those of us in the faith community from Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and beyond, can probably immediately think of someone we know or experience who is in this group. We may not be in their churches, but we have met them in one-way shape or form. We have seen the horrible spiritual and emotional abuse this crowd has committed against us and everyone in the LGBTQ+ community.
How this form of conversion therapy manifests: It manifests in sermons threatening LGBTQ+ people with sickness and pain in the present as well as hellfire in the eternal. It reveals itself in the screaming megaphone, horrible protest signs, and raised Bible protests at Pride parades and outside of LGBTQ+ events. It manifests in outright exorcisms done in the name of “healing” or “deliverance” prayer. It is the spiritual version of electroshock therapy where merely being who you are is literally demonized. It also manifests in the more extreme ex-gay support groups who use all of these methods in private group meetings.
The church should include all of God’s children, including the ones that are LGBTQ+ seamlessly. We should have the same access to resources and opportunities to grow in faith and serve others. We should not be hidden away in some remote room on a weeknight when no one else is in the church or have heavy unfair restrictions on us even to attend church.
The Cultish “What’s going on in the woods?” Crowd
These groups are more mysterious because they prefer not to be talked about broadly. These cults seek to control the lives of their “clients” for a weekend or over an extended amount of time in live-in programs.
How this form of conversion therapy manifests: Weekend retreats to teach people how to be “real” men or women. It can also be live-in programs where the leaders rip open old wounds to scapegoat being LGBTQ+ as the reason for the hurt or a result of the hurt. The real underlying issues get dredged up but never actually addressed in a meaningful way. They are repurposed to reinforce stigma against what it means to be LGBTQ+ and leads to further trauma. It’s reliving the abuse for the sake of the program instead of genuinely being a lasting healing exercise.
These cults or cultish groups need to be exposed for the fraud they are and in some cases reported to the police.
The Scariest Group of all: Joe & Jane “ex-gay ministry” Graduates
This group is where the most significant ex-gay/conversion ministry in the world for 37 years, Exodus International, and many of the groups that sprung up in its wake reside. This is the scariest group because they hide in plain sight. It is damaging and much more widespread than even this group realizes. This group sees itself as the more moderate, realistic, and thoughtful group. This group will actively denounce the other three groups I just mentioned (except for a lot of professional conversion therapists who deny that’s who they are and what they are doing.)
How this form of conversion therapy manifests: This group has lots of smiles and pats on the back. They may even try to identify as “celibate Christians” or overtly denounce being called “ex-gay” and adopt LGBTQ+ lingo. But don’t be fooled, they believe that the underlying “same-sex attractions” are disordered and “sexual brokenness” needs to be directed toward celibacy or seeking to find one’s Biblically acceptable gender identity.
This group is peer-based so it can be someone subtly delivering toxic theology over coffee or in a small group at a church once a week. They will do everything they can to not offend the LGBTQ+ person. They may not be thumping their Bibles, but they do have one in their satchel … you know… just in case the Lord opens the door to convert you to their way of thinking. When it is all said and done, they believe that LGBTQ+ people need to be transformed out of who they truly are and into the same stigmatized context the other three groups mentioned in this article also impose.
Also, in the peer-based support groups and networks, conversion therapy (once known as reparative therapy) completely infused their teachings and methods into this realm as well. It’s a large group of people trying to introduce “professional” ideas and thoughts without the professional skillset of a licensed counselor. This is another reason this group is probably the scariest; they have the veneer of a knowledgeable, wise friend passing deep insight instead of what it is; spiritually corrosive poison, based in cultural bigotry and religious stigma against LGBTQ+ people.
Conclusion: With Regard To A Healthy Sense of Self, The Only Face That Matters is the One You See In the Mirror
True self-acceptance and loving authentic relationships are what is life-giving; life-saving. You do not have to be abused by any form of conversion therapy.
Regardless of where you are and whether you identify within the LGBTQ+ spectrum or not, conversion therapy (professional, pastoral, or peer-based) is not the way to go. Many thousands of survivors with decades of experience will tell you, and the only real transformation is the one where we learn to embrace ourselves for who we indeed are. Embrace the truth LGBTQ+ people are human like everyone else. We have issues to deal with like everyone else. Those issues aren’t because we are LGBTQ+; they are because we are humans who happen to be LGBTQ+.
We should be embraced and celebrated for the treasures we are, not siphoned off into the stained glass or professional counselors closet. We should be equipped and welcomed to thrive in our authentic selves, not create a false self that is defined by shame-based religion and cultural stigma.
You are beautiful and in no need of converting or transforming into someone else’s expectations.
For those of faith, God sees and knows you by name. God is in no way angry with you or demanding you be something you are not. God loves the treasure you are from the moment you took your first breath. God loves you in every moment, including the epiphany you will have (or have had) of your true beauty. God loves the moment when you embrace how you are created to love and be loved, to know and be known. God will love you with every breath you take for the rest of your long and beautiful life.
For those who don’t happen to ascribe to any form of faith, your intrinsic worth is inestimable. You are valued and needed in this world for a myriad of reasons. You deserve to be loved and affirmed. You can have that in your life. You have a fantastic community around you to help lift your burdens and we need your unique contribution to help us all become even more healthy, complete, and whole.
Conversion therapy in all its forms only manifests in the moment, but authentic love always wins over time.