50.50: Investigation

Are you a victim of ‘conversion therapy’? This is what you can do

Mathew Shurka, co-founder of the US campaign Born Perfect, explains what action to take if you or someone you know is subjected to this deadly practice

Mathew Shurka
6 December 2021, 10.51am
‘Bobby’ undergoes ‘conversion therapy’ in Born Perfect’s video
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Illustration: Inge Snip

I work for the National Centre for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a legal organisation fighting for the rights of LGBT people across the US. In 2014, we launched Born Perfect, a campaign to end the deadly practice of ‘conversion therapy’, which refers to attempts to stop a person from being LGBTQ by pressuring them to change their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Few practices hurt LGBTQ youth more than ‘conversion therapy’ – also known as ‘reparative therapy’, ‘ex-gay therapy’ or ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE). It can cause depression, substance abuse and suicide. It’s promoted and practised by many people, including professional therapists and spiritual advisers (such as a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam).

According to a 2018 study by the Family Acceptance Project, rates of attempted suicide by LGBTQ young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation were more than double (48%) those of LGBT young adults who reported no conversion experiences (22%). And for young people who reported both home-based efforts (by parents) and external efforts (by therapists and/or religious leaders) to change their sexual orientation, the attempted suicide rate nearly tripled (63%).

The goal of Born Perfect is simple – we want to eradicate this incredibly dangerous practice. We’re helping to pass laws across the US to protect LGBTQ children and young people (under-18s). We’re fighting in courtrooms to ensure their safety, and raising awareness about the serious harms caused by these dangerous practices.

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Since launching the project, we have helped to pass laws in 20 US states and more than 100 localities. We also successfully represented a ‘conversion therapy’ survivor in a consumer fraud lawsuit against her therapist.

Yet despite this progress, many mental health providers and spiritual advisers continue to subject young LGBTQ people to ‘conversion therapy’ – even though it has been condemned by every major medical and mental health organisation in the country. Currently, Born Perfect has identified more than 3,560 individual therapists and more than 600 organisations promoting ‘conversion therapy’ in the US.

What can a young person do if they, or someone they know, experiences ‘conversion therapy’? Here’s some practical advice if you are in the US.

Get accurate information

It is critically important for parents or guardians to get accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity. Parents often send their children to ‘conversion therapy’ based on the misguided belief that being gay or transgender is a choice – and that their children can reject those identities if they just try hard enough.

Research has shown that most of those parents – once they have accurate information about these issues and the incredible harms caused by ‘conversion therapy’ – will ultimately reject those practices. In the US, the Family Acceptance Project has a wealth of evidence-based materials specifically geared for racially and religiously diverse families.

Find a supportive adult

If you have been sent to ‘conversion therapy’ by a parent, it is essential to find another supportive adult in your life – including someone who may be able to intervene on your behalf. It could be a family friend or another relative, or anyone your parents know and respect. Studies have shown that having just one supportive adult in a young person’s life can protect that young person from some of the most dangerous consequences of family rejection – such as suicidality or other self-harming behaviours.

File a complaint

If the therapist providing ‘conversion therapy’ is a licensed mental health provider, you could file a complaint against them to the state licensing board. This applies in any state, regardless of whether it has passed a law specifically banning ‘conversion therapy’. Every state in the US has rules and regulations that apply to licensed clinicians, and complaint processes for patients or former patients to use.

Every major medical and mental health association in the US recognises the incredible harms that ‘conversion therapy’ can cause, so filing a complaint to the relevant licensing body can be an effective way to hold therapists accountable.

When our client Curtis Galloway in Kentucky wanted to file a complaint against his former ‘conversion therapist’ – a licensed social worker – Born Perfect attorneys submitted a complaint on his behalf to the Kentucky Board of Social Work. That board has the power to discipline social workers and even remove their licences. The case is currently under investigation.

Get help – including legal help

Perhaps the most important thing to know is that you are not alone – and there are many people who have your back. You do not have to navigate these issues by yourself and there are many groups that can help.

Some organisations, such as the Trevor Project, have people available 24 hours a day that you can talk to by phone, text or online chat, in confidence and for free, if you have thoughts of harming yourself or ending your life.

Born Perfect and many other LGBTQ legal groups have legal helplines that you can call for confidential legal information. You do not have to pay anything when you use these helplines, and qualified staff will explain your legal options and find resources to help you.

In particular, it is essential to reach out for legal help if you are being threatened with being sent to a mental health facility, boarding school or other residential programme because you are LGBTQ. Young people sent to this type of ‘treatment’ are often isolated and cut off from any contact with the outside world. Let friends and other family members know that you are afraid of being sent away for ‘conversion therapy’ and ask them to contact a lawyer on your behalf if this does happen to you.

Stopping the horrific abuse of ‘conversion therapy’ is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. No matter who you are, you have a role to play in bringing this cruel practice to an end. If you are an LGBTQ young person, arm yourself with knowledge about your legal rights and information to help your family understand and support you. If you are an adult, be prepared to educate others and to intervene if a young person in your family is threatened with or subjected to this abusive practice.

Together, we can speak up and take action to ensure that no child or young person is ever subjected to ‘conversion therapy’ and that every LGBTQ youth knows that they are born perfect.

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