A brief history of…

Two new films are coming out in 2018, Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which both deal with the controversial subject of gay conversion therapy in teenagers. These films, which star a range of famous actors, may spark a much needed conversation on conversion therapy, and the dangers that come along with it.

But what is conversion therapy, and where did it come from?

Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative therapy”, is in its most basic definition the process of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay or bisexual to straight.

When someone says the phrase conversion therapy, it’s easy to imagine imagine the classic image of a priest or other quasi-religious figure performing some kind of alternative exorcism on young scared gay kid in some rural conservative town in America in the 1950s.

However, the truth is conversion therapy comes in many different forms. It isn’t always violent, and it doesn’t always take place in small towns some 50+ years ago. It has existed all over the world, including in places you wouldn’t expect. What’s most distressing though, is that conversion therapy – of adults and children alike – still very much exists in the modern world.

Conversion Therapy in Europe – the early Freudian period

The history of conversion therapy is complicated and spans decades. However, the first recorded instances of scientific methods being used to change a person’s sexual orientation can be traced back to famous physician and psychologist Sigmund Freud.

Freud became famous for his unorthodox views on sexuality, and his theories about where sexual desire in humans comes from. When it comes to homosexuality, Freud believed it to be a deviation from “normal” sexual desire, with a mixture of biological and psychological factors to blame for this. What may be surprising to some is that Freud had some fairly realistic views for the time about whether or not one could change their sexuality and admitted that in some instances, homosexuality was so deeply rooted in a person that they may never be able to change.

In response to one letter sent by a mother concerned over her son’s homosexual tendencies, Freud wrote:

“I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. … it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. … By asking me if I can help [your son], you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way we cannot promise to achieve it.”

Although this description of conversion therapy seems far away from any form of modern medical practise in Europe, treatments to cure one’s homosexuality were actually offered on the NHS for a number of years, with electro-convulsive therapy and chemical castrations being used until the 1980s.

Conversion Therapy in the United States – early 20th century

Freud’s ideas regarding sexual orientation bled into the United States in the early 20th century just as psychoanalysis was gaining recognition.

One of the first psychoanalysts at the time was Abraham Brill, who wrote “The Conception of Homosexuality”, which he published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Brill notably did not agree with most physical forms of conversion therapy, such as castration, but instead focused on helping patients regain some sense of “heterosexual potency”. His research led him to be much more sympathetic towards homosexuals than the average person, admitting that he believed homosexuality should not be treated as a disease.

However, Brill’s thoughts were rejected by most of his peers at the time, with many psychoanalysts growing increasingly frustrated by their inability to cure their homosexual patients. This frustration led them to blame the patients themselves. Edmund Bergler, an Austrian doctor writing in America, theorized that homosexuality was a result of one’s internalised hatred for one’s mother:

“This phase began with the weaning shock, which mobilizes enormous sadistic rage against the breasts of the depriving phallic mother, which is an attempt at narcissistic restitution for the lost breasts of the mother. Due to guilt, this rage is transmuted into a masochistic fantasy of being beaten by the father, substituting the boy’s own buttocks for the mother’s breasts and idealizing the father out of hatred of the mother, thereby substituting a homosexual for a heterosexual bond.”

In 1979, Master and Johnson, two of the most revolutionary sex researchers in the USA, published Homosexuality in Perspective, which described a study of 54 gay men who were dissatisfied with their sexual orientation. According to their findings, homosexuality was a result of an inability to garner proper heterosexual responsiveness due to a block of some kind. From From 1968 to 1977, the Masters and Johnson Institute ran a program to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Although they claimed the program had a high success rate, it is likely these results were fabricated by William Masters.

Conversion Therapy Now

Despite no credible scientific evidence having ever been found in support of a treatment or series of treatments that can “change” one’s sexual orientation, in many parts of the world, including the USA, it is still used as a form of therapy, often involving minors.

It was only in March of this year that the European parliament passed a resolution condemning conversion therapy and officially told EU states to ban it entirely.

Despite this, many people today still believe people in the credibility of conversion therapy. A study by Stonewall found that 10 per cent of health and care staff have witnessed colleagues expressing the belief that lesbian, gay and bi people can be “cured” of their sexual orientation.

Still though, it seems that more and more people are speaking out against the dangers of conversion therapy. In 2009 journalist Patrick Strudwick visited a conversion therapist claiming he wanted to become straight, when in reality he was secretly a gay rights campaigner and was challenging medical health professionals who were claiming they could change a person’s sexual orientation.

During his research he met Lesley Pilkington who had attempted conversion therapy before. She was eventually found out and punished by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who deemed her methods “professional malpractice”.

With more truthful media exposure of the reality of conversion therapy coming to light in the next few years, we can only hope that some of it will impact those people who do still believe you can pray the gay away.


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