DOES “CONVERSION THERAPY” help, harm, or do neither? The American Psychological Association (APA) sees “insufficient evidence” to prove psychological interventions can change sexual orientation. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says such interventions may be harmful. The American Academy of Pediatrics claims conversion therapy “can provoke guilt and anxiety.” The American Medical Association (AMA) backs ongoing efforts to outlaw the therapy.
And yet, the APA has admitted that many people do change sexual preferences over time. Human sexuality may be especially changeable among those who describe themselves as gay, bisexual, or transgender. In her 2016 paper “Sexual Fluidity in Males and Females,” published in Current Sexual Health Reports, University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond noted that “change in patterns of same-sex and other-sex attraction is a relatively common experience among sexual minorities.”
For decades health professionals have discussed the roles of nature and nurture in developing sexual orientations. The APA and AMA claim science does not support any linkage of homosexuality with sexual abuse or a troubled childhood. But many professional therapists and Christian counselors insist many of their clients who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions carry other serious baggage. Some came from broken families or were victims of rape or childhood sexual abuse.
California psychologist Joseph Nicolosi Jr. says our brains can rewire themselves “and sexuality can shift.” Nicolosi and other therapists say many of their clients have dealt with trauma and resolved unwanted same-sex attractions.
IN THE 1950S AND ’60S, when manuals listed homosexuality as a psychological disorder, scientific researchers tried many methods—even electroshock, induced vomiting, and shame-based conditioning—to change a homosexual orientation. But those techniques were ineffective and often inhumane. When psychologists took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders in 1973, same-sex behavior moved from pathological to acceptable and, for some, virtuous.
The field of psychology doesn’t formally recognize anyone as a “conversion therapist,” and I could find no currently licensed therapist who described his practice as “conversion therapy.” Even church groups and ex-gay ministries shy away from the term, instead pledging accountability and mentoring for anyone seeking help.
Yet public hearings nationwide are replete with shocking conversion therapy stories, many by former clients who claim therapists tried to coerce them into falsely believing they had been sexually abused or had bad parents.
Junior Avalos told Minneapolis city legislators he attended a boot camp in Texas where counselors conditioned male participants to speak with deeper voices and “beat us like dogs” if participants didn’t comply. Jory Miller said he became suicidal after meeting weekly with his pastor, who probed him repeatedly about repressed memories of sexual abuse that Miller said didn’t occur.
Sam Brinton, head of government advocacy at the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth advocacy group, claims his Southern Baptist missionary parents sent him to a conversion therapist in Florida when he was 12. “The therapist told me I was sick, that God hated me, that the government had already exterminated all other gay people,” he told the UN Committee Against Torture in 2014. Brinton said the therapist poked his fingers with needles, placed ice in his strapped-down hands as he looked at erotic pictures, and wrapped hot coils on his hands to electroshock him.
Conversion therapy survivors like these may have experienced real harm from someone they trusted. But it’s hard to know: In the 50 cases of publicized survivor stories that I tracked, only 10 survivors named their therapist (of those, a few named the same therapist)—and that makes it hard to verify most reports of abuse. Brinton, for example, has given conflicting accounts about where his therapy took place and admitted to an LGBT news website his therapist was a “religious therapist and not a doctor.” (Through a spokesperson, Brinton declined to answer specific questions for this story.)
For a therapy criticized as dangerous and ineffective, the paper trail to track down “bad” therapists is thin. I could identify only one former client—Katherine McCobb—who sued her therapist for attempting to change her orientation. In 2017, McCobb accused Lloyd Willey, a licensed marriage and family therapist, of trying to change her orientation by instructing her to act more feminine and allegedly orchestrating a sexual relationship between her and one of his male clients. McCobb and Willey quietly settled that case out of court last year. Willey still has a valid license in California.
Survivors I tracked identified by name a total of five therapists who they claim harmed them. One, Joseph Nicolosi (father of Joseph Nicolosi Jr.) died in 2017. Another therapist, James Wilder, I reached by email, but he declined to discuss his client’s case beyond acknowledging “the effort to improve the family closeness and communication with his father was reported to have caused him and his family harm.” An attorney for Lloyd Willey declined to provide his client’s contact info.
Harsh boot camps may still exist. A 2017 ABC News investigation uncovered several “conversion therapy camps” where pastors isolated troubled teens and beat or verbally abused them. All of the camps ABC reported on have since closed, with leaders arrested and charged with child abuse. But these camps, including Restoration Youth Academy in Prichard, Ala., Blessed Hope Boys Academy in Seminole, Ala., and the Joshua Home in Burnet County, Texas, worked with a variety of troubled youth, not just gay teens. Also, it appears none was licensed to perform professional therapy.
David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas who meets with clients expressing unwanted same-sex attractions, says states should not pass blanket bans but instead regulate specific therapy practices, separating the bad therapists from the good: “They should take licenses away.”