If you have been a member of a community of faith for a long time, particularly in the American South, you may have heard of conversion therapy. This practice, frequently undertaken not by licensed mental health professionals (as one would expect therapy to be) but rather by religious leaders hoping to promote compliance with their own agendas, has many harmful outcomes for the LGBTQIA+ people who undergo it.
It is humbling when those who have survived conversion therapy find the forgiveness and grace to still pursue God and become a member of a church again. When this happens, it's important to be educated and trustworthy. Understanding the downfalls and effects this damaging practice often has on people can help leaders make the church a safer, more welcoming place.
Conversion therapy is a broad term that applies to any program that tries to convince LGBTQIA+ people to renounce their sexual identities. These attempts to alter others are branded under the guise of many other names:
- Reparative therapy
- Sexuality counseling
- Sexual wholeness support
- Sexual reorientation
- Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy (SAFE-T)
These terms are designed to sound helpful. This can lull those who are already experiencing some cognitive dissonance between their conservative beliefs and their personal attractions into believing the programs are safe places to resolve their inner conflict. Unfortunately, the sessions often have the opposite effect, inspiring even more despair when it becomes clear to participants that who they really are is not who they are told they should be. These practices often prey on feelings of self-loathing without offering a feasible solution, thus failing to provide the healing they promise and leading to more damage.
Damaging Mental Health
Conversion therapy has been discredited by the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and many other respected institutions. Because LGBTQIA+ identities are positive variations along the sexuality spectrum, there is no need to repair them. Trying to do so can result in significant damage to mental health.
Depression and anxiety are already common diagnoses for those who are frequent targets of identity-based hate and violence. The experience of conversion therapy can double the chances that an LGBTQIA+ person will attempt suicide. The effects of these programs are often long-lasting and require many years of treatment to address. A good way to support survivors in your church is to make quality therapy as accessible as possible through financial support and connections with trusted professionals.
Exacerbating Social Harm
Many people who undergo conversion therapy do so under duress. They are often minors who are forced into the program by their parents or guardians. To refuse is to face homelessness and abandonment by their family. Being forced to choose between denial of self and utter estrangement from their core social support is not really a choice at all.
On-site programs pose an even greater threat of social isolation. Participants are removed from the influence of friends and any social support they have outside the home to be sequestered for the duration of the program. This alarming practice mirrors the tendency of abusers to isolate their victims from other people so that they can more fully control them. As a result, the attendees' viewpoint can become altered so that the reality in which their sexual identity is not accepted is the only one they see. Your church can combat this viewpoint with frequent assurances that they are loved - by you and by God - just the way they are.
Trying to get people to alter their sexual identities to fit a narrow subset of the human experience is harmful. Your church can play an important role in helping those who have undergone such treatment to heal.