A new report has exposed the global reach of so-called conversion therapy, the discredited and dangerous practice of trying to change LGBTQ sexuality or gender identity.
The report, released by OutRight Action International, draws on data from survey results with almost 500 respondents from 80 countries, and in-depth interviews with experts and survivors from more than a dozen countries.
It shows that conversion therapy efforts occur across the world and are predominantly promoted and perpetrated by people acting in the name of religion or pseudo-healthcare, often instigated by family pressure.
Conversion therapy is the most widely used term to describe practices attempting to change, suppress, or divert one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
It is also called reorientation therapy, reparative therapy, reintegrative therapy, or, more recently, support for unwanted same-sex attraction or transgender identities.
The practices vary due to religious, cultural, or traditional contexts and range from overtly physically violent, such as electroshock or “corrective rape”, to psychologically abusive, such as isolation or psychiatric hospitalisation, or more subtle forms of talk therapy or group therapy.
Practices can also be religiously based, including extensive prayer, fasting and spiritual rituals.
The study found that:
• The main perpetrators and advocates of conversion therapy are people acting in the name of religion or pseudo-healthcare, with LGBTIQ individuals often coerced or pressured by family.
• A third of the people who responded to this study who experienced so-called conversion therapy sought it out themselves.
• While they may vary due to religious, cultural, or traditional norms and contexts, conversion therapy practices never work; instead, they cause deep, lasting trauma.
• Persistence of conversion therapy is directly related to societal beliefs about LGBTIQ people and the degree to which our lives are deemed unacceptable within families, faiths, and societies at large.
• Respondents from 80 countries showed that “conversion therapy” occurs in all regions of the world.
It is cis-gender, heteronormative indoctrination
“Conversion therapy is not a single event – it is a process of continued degradation and assault on the core of who you are,” says George Barasa, a survivor of conversion therapy from Kenya. “There are often repeated violations in the form of psychological and sometimes physical abuse… It is not one instance – it is a continued sense of rejection. The pressure is enormous.”
In South Africa, the report notes: “Despite favourable laws prohibiting discrimination and supporting marriage equality, conservative faith-based movements and prevailing societal homophobia and transphobia nevertheless create a ripe environment for promoting SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) change practices.”
It states that Pentecostal churches, as well as Christian African Independent Churches, have a growing influence “and most are fundamentalist in their view of SOGIE diversity, treating homosexuality, in particular, as needing ‘cure’.”
The report also includes the horrific phenomenon of “corrective rape”. “Premised on the belief that forced sex will show people (mostly women who are or are perceived to be lesbians, but also transgender people and gay men) how to conform to expected gender norms, this vicious practice is perpetrated by family members, acquaintances, and strangers,” write the authors.
“Our report paints a chilling picture of the global prevalence of these barbaric practices which constitute cis-gender, heteronormative indoctrination,” says Maria Sjödin, Deputy Director of Outright Action International.
“So-called conversion therapy efforts hinge on the belief that cis-gender heterosexuality is the norm, and gender identities beyond the binary and/or same-sex attraction not only fall outside the norm, but have to be changed, if need be by brutal, inhuman force, through practices which have been recognised to be tantamount to torture by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.”
Strides have been taken to raise awareness and even outlaw such practices in parts of the US, Latin America, Europe, and Australia. However, to date, only four countries have an outright ban on so-called conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy has not been outlawed in South Africa. In April 2018, the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) reaffirmed its condemnation of conversion therapy and said those mental health professionals who practice it should lose their license.
Sjödin welcomes the efforts of a handful of governments around the world to ban conversion therapy and urges governments in other countries to take similar steps.
“At the same time, it is clear that the demand for conversion therapy will only diminish when social, family, and religious condemnation of LGBTIQ lives ceases, and LGBTIQ people are free to live their lives with access to their full human rights,” adds Sjödin.