A psychologist and a Catholic priest backed by a US Christian group have been accused of running anti-gay ‘conversion therapy’ sessions telling young LGBTQ people in Guatemala to give up sex.
I learned about their activities while I was working on an openDemocracy investigation into US conservative groups’ activities against LGBTQ people in Central America. Posing as a lesbian Catholic young woman who’d had a one-year relationship with another woman, I went undercover in Guatemala City to meet members of the US Catholic organisation Courage International.
Both the psychologist and the priest told me that there was no “cure” for my “condition” except for a life of “chastity”.
The psychologist, who volunteers with Courage International, asked me many personal and family questions, and suggested I had sought a woman’s love “because your mother was not affectionate”.
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The interview was held outside due to the pandemic – in the communal garden of the block of flats where the psychologist said she lived. There was no privacy, and neighbours were constantly passing by.
Aside from that, it was like a conventional therapy session, but she defined ‘sin’ as an illness to argue that I should, as a supposed lesbian, live in sexual abstinence.
After the session, the psychologist sent me a video in which the US Catholic conservative activist Evan Lemoine says: “Every sex act that is not intended for reproduction is prostitution.”
Only a handful of countries ban ‘conversion therapy’, and Guatemala is not among them. Furthermore, there are no laws in the country to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination or attack.
The code mandates, for example, “respect for the diversity of peoples and persons, and for human dignity”, adding: “It is important to avoid value judgments or imposition of personal beliefs.”
Living a ‘chaste life’
I met the psychologist after initially talking with a priest. He suggested I join a group of women with “same-sex attraction” who have resolved to “live chaste lives”. But in order to be admitted to the group, I had to agree not to perform “homosexual acts” and to be interviewed by the psychologist.
The priest told me directly that Courage International did not seek to ‘convert’ gay people – and yet the UN's description of 'conversion therapy' says that these interventions are based on the belief that a person's sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed or suppressed, and are aimed at changing them to heterosexual or cisgender.
We were sitting in a large, dark room inside a church in a residential neighbourhood of Guatemala City. The priest read to me, in a calm, paternal tone, the five goals of Courage International: chastity; prayer and dedication; fellowship; support; and “to live lives that may serve as good examples to others”.
“Have you had intimacy with other women?” he asked me. “Did you experience any harmful situation, like touching, in your childhood?” His intent, he said, was to dig into my personal history to find any traumatic experience that could explain my homosexuality. He also asked: “Do you feel guilty?”
“Homosexual acts are immoral,” the priest said. “‘Same-sex attraction’ is not an illness,” he said. “Some people say it’s a dysfunction [...]. It’s just a condition [...]. It is not a sin. But if I indulge in this attraction, I can be in sin.”
‘Conversion therapy’ is, according to a UN report, “an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person's sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed […] Such practices are […] consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”
It has been discredited by medical organisations such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which says such interventions “lack scientific credibility and clinical utility” and are potentially harmful.
In response to our findings, Courage International said: “Neither the Catholic Church nor Courage expect anyone to undergo counselling or treatment to ‘repair’, ‘convert’, ‘cure’ or otherwise ‘fix’ their sexual orientation.”
Regarding the volunteer therapist, the group said: “While psychologists and other professionals may be invited to attend [our] meetings from time to time, they are not considered regular staff or members of the apostolate.”
The statement continued: “It is becoming increasingly clear in the modern world that what is included under the heading of ‘conversion therapy’ in the minds of individuals and organisations really includes any honest conversation of sexual morality and sexual identity from a perspective of faith.”
While listening to the priest and the psychologist, I thought about the suffering experienced by people subjected to ‘conversion therapy’ across the world. Attempts to ‘cure’ or suppress the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ people have been reported in both Guatemala and the US.
One survivor of these attempts is Guatemalan psychologist Alejandro Villafuerte, one of the few voices publicly denouncing such activities in the country.
“Seeing yourself as evil, sick, sinful, the disgusting side of life, is the worst possible feeling,” he said.“The outcome was suicidal thoughts. Had I continued attending [those sessions], I would have attempted suicide.”
A 2018 survey in the US found that LGBTQ youths undergoing these so-called ‘cures’ “were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide”.
An openDemocracy investigation in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda earlier this year also revealed the negative impacts on LGBTQ people’s mental health, family relationships and well-being.
Aldo Dávila, Guatemala’s first openly gay politician and an advocate for LGBTQ rights, told me: “We had some warning signs about this [‘conversion therapy’ in Guatemala], but now that it’s confirmed [...] we’re realising it is more serious than previously thought.”
These practices “completely violate the most fundamental rights any human being is entitled to,” he said. “How many people are being humiliated right now, while no one does anything about it?”
Healthcare services cannot include moral judgements
Villafuerte, as a psychologist himself, believes there are reasonable grounds for the psychologists’ association to investigate the therapist I met.
“Healthcare services cannot include moral judgements,” he explained. People undergoing these sessions “can be consenting adults, but this is still a scam and medical malpractice”.
The Guatemalan College of Psychologists has never made statements about ‘conversion therapy’. It did not reply to openDemocracy’s questions about its position on such ‘therapy’ or how it would handle a complaint against Courage International’s psychologist.
Henry España, sexual diversity rights defender at Guatemala’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, told me that the ombudsman would open an investigation if a victim filed a report.
“An investigation must be opened, even if these are private services, [targeting] the public institution with oversight powers – in this case, the Ministry of Health, or the Ministry of the Interior in cases of churches [being involved],” he said.
In 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged Guatemala to adopt specific public policies to tackle sex- and gender-based discrimination.
But, Dávila says, far from protecting people from discrimination, the country’s politicians have overseen proposals to increase attacks against LGBTQ communities.
A 2018 bill, still pending, sought to legalise homophobia. Now a new bill directly targets LGBTQ children and youths under the guise of “protecting childhood and adolescence from gender identity disorders”.
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