Two new movies are shining a much-needed spotlight on the practice of gay “conversion therapy,” also known as the attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender expression of LGBTQ individuals.
In “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” released earlier this month, Chloë Grace Moretz plays Cameron, an 11th grader whose parents send her off to a boarding school that claims it will “cure” her same-sex desires after they catch her with another girl. “Boy Erased,” coming out this November, stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, the son of a Baptist minister who is forced into a “conversion therapy” program after he’s outed to his parents.
Given the rather broad support for LGBTQ rights and the general cultural acceptance of homosexuality today, it might be tempting to view the appearance of these two movies in 2018 as some esoteric, art house exploration of a bygone era or disappearing subculture. “Miseducation” is set in the now-distant year of 1993, long before “Will & Grace,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the legalization of same-sex marriage. And “Boy Erased” takes place in the world of small-town South, fundamentalist Christianity.
But the subject of both films is neither a historical artifact nor a rare event. Quite the opposite. As the Williams Institute at UCLA outlined earlier this year, about 700,000 American adults have undergone “conversion therapy” at some point in their lives, half of whom endured the experience as adolescents. Despite the opposition to “conversion therapy” by leading professional health organizations (including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association) and the widespread evidence that such treatments do not work and, in fact, can cause emotional and psychological harm. Thirty-six states still permit “conversion therapy” for underage minors; according to the Williams Institute, nearly 80,000 LGBTQ youth will receive the discredited therapy before they reach the age of 18.
“Conversion therapy” dates to the late 19th century, when the German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenk-Notzing claimed he’d turned a gay man straight through hypnosis sessions and several trips to a brothel. The practice accelerated through the 20th century even as the techniques remained crude and often barbaric. Historian Chris Babits, for instance, has found evidence of the widespread use of ice pick lobotomies performed on homosexual children in the 1940s and 1950s. Other techniques involved forced castration of homosexual men and electroconvulsive therapy.
After the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of psychiatric disorders in 1973, the medical establishment largely abandoned these practices. But efforts to turn gay people straight continued, carried out mostly by less-reputable counselors and religious organizations. Their methods tend to focus on talk therapy, but some, especially the so-called “ex-gay” ministries, often employ aversion treatments that amount to physical torture, including stimulating nausea and vomiting, inflicting electric shocks and subjecting patients to ice baths or extreme heat ― all while viewing homosexual photographs or videos.
Recognizing the emotional and physical harm such practices have on LGBTQ teens (not to mention how they violate their civil rights), states have sought to curb “conversion therapy.” In 2012, California became the first state to ban such treatment for minors. (California is currently considering outlawing the practice altogether for people of any age in the state.) Thirteen other states have followed suit, with five doing so just this year.
That trend may seem to indicate encouraging progress, but it could also have inspired a powerful counterresponse. Conservative groups have mobilized in defense of gay “conversion therapy” programs for minors. Just this year, anti-gay forces have helped to successfully defeat legislation that would ban the practice therapy for minors in Maine and Massachusetts. They have also helped keep similar measures from passing in New York for more than five years. That this is happening in these states – far from the Bible Belt – suggests the widespread nature of these programs.
The subject of both films is neither a historical artifact nor a rare event. Quite the opposite.
Opponents of “conversion therapy” bans argue that their outlawing violates parental rights and infringes on religious freedom. Yet even in states that have declared “conversion therapy” for minors illegal, those laws usually only cover licensed mental health care advisers. Religious and spiritual advisers generally remain exempt from the bans. Since religious-affiliated counselors and clergy form a significant portion of “conversion therapy” programs, state bans may actually do little to curtail the practice.
And now, in the era of President Donald Trump, the outlook appears even grimmer. The 2016 Republican Party platform called for “the right of parents to consent to medical treatment for their minor children,” which many interpreted as coded support for “conversion therapy.” The Trump administration includes several “conversion therapy” advocates in high-ranking positions, none more so than Vice President Mike Pence.
And while the Supreme Court previously turned down three challenges to California’s 2012 law, experts have pointed out that the current Supreme Court ― particularly if Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed following next month’s scheduled hearings ― will likely rule to protect “conversion therapy” programs.
This is devastating news for the real LGBTQ teens living in unaccepting families and communities, not just those portrayed in movies.
For decades, millions of Americans have lived their lives openly with integrity and pride. For them, and especially for those most vulnerable, the shame and horror of gay “conversion therapy” must also be brought into the open so that it can be further shunned if not outlawed altogether. The very lives and well-being of thousands of LGBTQ Americans may well depend on making this often-hidden practice much wider known.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”