Imagine being told by members of your family that who you are, and how you feel, is not acceptable. This is a common occurrence for many adolescents and adults who identify as LGBTQ and, in most cases, can lead to severe depression, substance abuse, self-harm, homelessness and suicide.
Regrettably, one ineffective and harmful treatment method to “change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity” remains legal in Michigan – as well as 29 other US states. The so-called gay conversion therapy uses psychological or spiritual interventions as a treatment or “cure,” but has been widely discredited by national mainstream medical and mental health organizations.
In fact, the American Psychological Association asserts there is no medical evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, and such therapy can leave long-lasting negative mental health impacts. And yet, NBC News reports that about 700,000 LGBTQ adults have undergone conversion therapy at some point in their lives, including 350,000 as adolescents.
A resolution against this practice was written by students at Wayne State University and Michigan State University, including WSU student Brianna Sohl. In 2019, It passed the Michigan State Medical Society, and later in 2019 the American Medical Association called for a nationwide ban on conversion therapy. This announcement was welcomed at the highest level of politics, getting support from former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, who called it a “heartbreakingly harmful practice.”
What is conversion therapy?
The history of conversion therapy dates more than a century, to the late 1800s.
In a 1935 letter, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, wrote to a mother seeking such a conversion for her child: “By asking me if I can help (your son) abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it,” Freud wrote.
Freud could not prove that this type of therapy worked in 1935, and that remains the reality in 2020.
In modern day practice, conversion therapy is generally supported by groups operating under the guise of religion, offering conversion through prayer or “reparative” therapy, but some dangerous techniques still remain.
Beyond that, consumer fraud is another concern surrounding conversion therapy, as the Michigan Consumer Protection Division has stated that this form of therapy may violate one or more provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, depending on exactly what they are doing and how it is being marketed.
Research has shown that not only is conversion therapy ineffective, the efforts do have harmful long-term psychological effects on the recipients. Conversion therapy leads to psychological distress, shame, feelings of isolation and low self-esteem, and long-term mental health problems.
Combined with the fact that LGBTQ populations already have increased rates of mental illness reported due to societal discrimination, the situation is made worse.
All major medical and mental health organizations in the U.S., including the American Psychological Association, have issued statements condemning the use of conversion therapy. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/apa-reiterates-strong-opposition-to-conversion-therapyThis topic is being more openly discussed on a national level, and is the central theme in films including “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”
Often, attempts at changing sexual orientation or gender identity are used by families on children under age 18, which can have major psychological impacts as they grow into adulthood.
It’s clear that conversion therapy causes harm to LGBTQ individuals and leads to increased emotional distress and attempts at suicide. This form of therapy should be banned for use on minors in Michigan, as it already is in 20 other states.
Currently, only three Michigan cities ban the practice for treatment of minors — Ferndale, Huntington Woods and East Lansing.
The push against conversion therapy comes from all sides, as even Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has argued to remove support for conversion therapy from the GOP party platform.
As we celebrate Pride Month and our diversity in June, we must do a better job in our families and the community to appreciate our LGBTQ youth for who they are, and avoid the use of outdated approaches like conversion therapy that do more harm than good.
Dr. Latonya Riddle-Jones is medical director at Corktown Health Center in Detroit, and an assistant professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine. For more information, visit corktownhealth.org.