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Throughout the history of the United States, homosexuality has always been recognized as a lifestyle that deviates from the norm. Being alienated from the rest of society can, of course, take a significant toll on a person. However, it was the political and legal oppression that made life especially heinous for the gay community in the early 1900s. In 1952, there seemed to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for the LGBT community. The first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association was published, and it labeled homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disorder” (Eaklor). At first, this medical recognition seemed as if it might open new doors for the LGBT community; homosexuality would no longer be a secret lifestyle that people opted for. Optimism ensued when new terms such as heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual were introduced, because before this medical model, there were no non-derogatory terms to describe people who harbored same-sex desires (Eaklor).
Also, by granting gay people a tangible, objective identity, a sense of acceptance might have arisen among those who shared the same identity. Although the Medical Model of homosexuality lent legitimacy to the community, it also presented a fresh set of challenges. Being gay no longer carried the same criminal implications as before, instead, it was linked with mental impairment. This prompted the question: would you rather be treated as an unlawful derelict or face the societal scorn of being mentally impaired? While criminals face charges, people with sociopathic disorders must endure therapeutic measures. The latter of the two proved to be more dire. Although the Medical Model gave new impetus for the application of therapeutic treatments, it wasn’t a unique concept. There is evidence of curative therapy cited in academic literature dating back to the 1890s (Mallory). With homosexuality’s addition to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, therapeutic treatment was no longer merely a practice enforced by extremists opposing same-sex love. It instead became an esteemed countermeasure to help relieve symptoms of the psychological affliction deemed as homosexuality. An array of institutions claim they can cure individuals of their homosexual desires; however, the methodologies employed by such groups vary greatly in severity and complexity.
How it works
Once homosexuality was officially classified as a psychological disease, the medical community began experimenting with therapeutic measures. Because medical doctors are expected to possess a certain level of expertise, people trusted their biological interventions would yield promising results. Biological attempts could be surgical, convulsive, or hormonal (Morrow). Some of the most aggressive biological conversion methods included clitoridectomy, castration or ovary removal, lobotomy, electric shock, and radiation (LeVay). In addition to medical doctors, therapists, and psychoanalysts also attempted to cure homosexual patients. Psychoanalysts claimed this developmental disorder emerged as a result of a child not having robust enough relationships with their parent or same-sex peers. This created a mindset in which the child sought intimacy from the same sex, instead of friendship (Morrow). To combat this developmental anomaly, therapists and counselors recommended support groups and “gender lessons”. The latter typically involved clients adopting stereotypical gender roles. Participants were also made to foster platonic relationships with members of the same sex to rectify the mental defect developed during childhood (Nicolosi).
Throughout history, many religious groups have denounced homosexuality, and even today, many conversion therapy organizations are rooted in the religious belief that heterosexuality is the only way God intended His people to love. Although many institutions have recognized a lack of supportive evidence for the success of conversion therapy and largely diminished their attempts at conversion, religious conversion therapy organizations have only heightened their efforts. In fact, the most eminent Christianity-based group, “Exodus International”, claims to have grown to 135 ministries in 17 countries.
Other religious groups report similar trends (Morrow). Such groups tend to employ conversion methods which exploit an individual’s spirituality and moral integrity. Examples of these countermeasures include an imperative to follow God’s plan, reflective prayer, biblical testimony, threats of an eternity in hell, and unequivocal guilt (Morrow). Another group that has not slowed its efforts to eradicate homosexual desires is the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). This group of psychotherapists use a range of methods including hypnosis, behavior and cognitive therapies, sex therapies, and psychotropic medication (Born Perfect). The methodologies employed by these organizations have almost universally been proven to be unsuccessful in “curing” homosexuality; however, they have had other, more consequential, effects on participants.
Respected medical and psychological associations across the nation have refuted the validity of curative therapy. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Pan American Health Organization have all publicly released their criticism of curative therapy and the health professionals who choose to offer it at their practices (Born Perfect). Not only is it disrespected, but curative therapy is also protested by many due to its detrimental and sometimes fatal effects. The consequences of curative therapy have been examined by a variety of institutions.
It is important to note that most of the data is on white, homosexual males because that was the demographic of people who were typically enrolled in conversion therapy. There are some reports of a minority of patients experiencing decreased sexual desire for same-sex partners and increased sexual desire for partners of the opposite sex, which were typically short-lived. The majority of the recorded data reports an overwhelming amount of negative side effects. The American Psychological Association assembled a task force in 2009 in order to analyze the effects, both positive and negative, of curative therapy under the term “sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).” In many of the early treatment studies in the late 1900s, participants would often drop out in the beginning stages of treatment.
This serves to corroborate the suggestion that treatment was not a pleasant experience for the participants. In a non-experimental study conducted by Bancroft in 1969, numerous negative side effects were reported by male patients who underwent SOCE. The study consisted of data recorded from 16 participants. 20% reported treatment-related anxiety, 10% reported suicidal ideation, 40% reported depression, 10% reported impotence, and 10% reported relationship dysfunction. In total, Bancroft’s study recorded harmful side effects in 50% of the men who participated in the study (American Psychological Association).
In studies performed more recently, participants report self-reports of anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, insomnia, digestive health problems, and sexual dysfunction (American Psychological Association). It is estimated that about 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. alone have received corrective therapy (Mallory). With that number in mind, one can imagine the ramifications of such “treatments” on the wellbeing of the LGBT community, especially the youth. Studies like Bancroft’s have proven that 50% of participants are burdened with new problems beyond the systemic obstacles that someone from a minority group already experiences.
Even with little supportive evidence of the occurrence of an enduring change in sexual orientation, there are still organizations that argue for the perpetuation of corrective therapy. The major stance taken by those in favor of corrective therapy is that homosexuality is a choice and therefore, susceptible to modification (Morrow). This argument is typically put forward by anti-LGBT groups who believe being gay is unnatural and, therefore, should be eliminated from society. Religious groups argue that homosexuality is sinful, while psychoanalysts argue that it is a sign of mental instability. Some participants have experienced beneficial effects from corrective therapy such as increases in spirituality and self-esteem, which offers the opportunity to advocate in favor of corrective therapy.
Those who are against corrective therapy point out the fact that positive experiences during and after treatment are significantly less common than negative ones. In addition, it is argued that much of the research that supports corrective therapy is seriously methodologically and conceptually flawed (Morrow). Another common stance of anti-LGBT groups in favor of corrective therapy is that taking away someone’s ability to undergo treatment is a direct violation of their constitutional right to freedom of speech (Born Perfect). To this, anti-corrective therapy groups refer to existing legislation designed to protect the rights of patients when dealing with counselors and therapists.
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