The Continuing Threat of Conversion Therapy

I sing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, and for our latest concert we’re performing the east coast premiere of Unbreakable, a musical chronicles LGBTQ history in the United States. It covers everything from the origin of the word “gay” to the Stonewall riots to the AIDS crisis and beyond. During rehearsals, chorus members have given presentations on the topics covered in the songs to educate and give context.

I volunteered to talk about Dr. Charles Socarides, who we sing about in ”Happy Homosexual.” Socarides was a psychiatrist from the 1970s, famous for saying “There is no such thing as a happy homosexual.” He espoused much of the harmful theories still used today in conversion therapy. Socarides believed that homosexuality was a neurotic adaptation in men caused by absent fathers and overly doting mothers. He also claimed to have helped over one third of his patients become heterosexual.

Socarides died in 2005, survived by four children from his four marriages. In a beautiful bit of irony, his oldest son, Richard, is openly gay, and served as senior advisor on gay and lesbian issues for the Clinton administration.

Unfortunately, Socarides’ legacy of harm lives on, as conversion therapy continues to deceive, traumatize, and kill generations of queer people.

What is Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, ex-gay therapy, or sexual orientation change efforts, has its roots in pre-Freudian torture of gays and lesbians. Lobotomies, castration, and institutionalization were common treatments for the “mental disorder” of homosexuality. In the 50s and 60s, methods were only slightly less extreme, utilizing electric shock treatments, aversion techniques (nausea-inducing drugs given simultaneously with images that incited same-sex attraction), and masturbatory reconditioning

Me in 1997, from a Washington Blade cover story about conversion therapy

My Experience with Conversion Therapy

Beginning at 18, I was involved in some form of conversion therapy for nearly a decade. Growing up the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, when I had a problem, the first solution was always God. I still remember calling the Baylor campus health center, trembling as I asked if they had counselors to help me be straight. I “came out” to my parents soon after, assuring them I could be cured if they paid for the therapy. They were just as ill-prepared to deal with my “condition,” and eagerly offered their support.

“We have seen a significant slowdown from the heydays of just a few years ago when we passed a law protecting LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy every other month it seemed.”

Conversion Therapy by the Numbers

The statistics* below show the efficacy of conversion therapy bans, while also demonstrating the harm it causes LGBTQ people, particularly queer youth.

  • There are an estimated 700k survivors of conversion therapy, half of whom were minors when they began.
  • Conversion therapy occurrences rose during Covid, with many high school and college students feeling trapped at home in unsupportive environments.
  • LGBTQ+ youth are 4-5x more likely to attempt suicide than their cis/het counterparts; thus LGBTQ+ youth who’ve experienced conversion therapy are 8-10x more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *