US doctors publish rallying cry to ban on torturous conversion therapy

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US doctors are calling for an end to maligned conversion therapies that claim to change peoples’ sexual orientations in a top medical journal. 

Last year, the award-winning film, Boy Erased, starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Joel Edgerton, gave a historical glimpse at conversion therapy in the American South, and brought US attention back to the practice, which is very much alive today.  

Conversion therapy’s dark history has seen doctors shock, hypnotize and castrate patients whose sexual orientations they wrongly deemed medical issues. 

Same-sex marriage is at long last legal in all 50 US states and LGBTQ+ rights have been greatly expanded – but it’s still legal to subject children under 18 to conversion therapy in 32 states.  

Doctors and professors from Harvard University, Boston University and the University of Texas, Austin, are demanding an end to the so-called ‘treatments’ that they say are traumatic, unethical and raise serious mental health risks, they write in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

LGBTQ+ minors can still be legally subjected to conversion therapy in 32 US states (yellow), point out US doctors urging for a federal ban on the traumatic practice

LGBTQ+ minors can still be legally subjected to conversion therapy in 32 US states (yellow), point out US doctors urging for a federal ban on the traumatic practice 

Sexuality is now widely considered a spectrum, about seven percent of Americans identify as an orientation other than straight, and more heterosexual people report having same-sex experiences. 

But this understanding and acceptance for it is relatively new. 

Homosexuality was only removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, when the American Psychological Association decreed that being gay is not a mental illness. 

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Conversion therapy predates even the prior designation of homosexuality as an illness in the DSM in the 1950s.  

THE SORDID HISTORY OF CONVERSION THERAPIES

The first record of explicit conversion therapy is from 1988, when the German psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing proclaimed that he had used hypnosis and a sort of exposure therapy (trips to a brothel) to turn a gay man straight. 

He set the stage for a centuries-long practice  of treating non-heterosexuality as a medical issue to be treated. 

Some continued subject patients to hypnosis, other patients were forced to endure dangerous electroconvulsive therapy delivered to their heads or even genitals. Still others were lobotomized. 

Such blatantly, physically torturous practices have largely fallen away – but deeply psychologically traumatizing conversion therapies are alive and well. 

CONVERSION THERAPIES MAY BE LESS PHYSICAL NOW – BUT THEY ARE NO LESS TRAUMATIC 

One of the study’s co-author’s Michael Ferguson, went through seven such programs, most of which were affiliated with the Mormon Church he’d grown up in. 

He was forced to play out ‘psychodramas’ of his past or meant to represent abandoning homosexuality and embracing hyper-masculinity. 

In other portions of these programs, he was subjected to various exercises involving touch from other men.  

Paradoxically, these embraces were meant to rid him of attraction to men by putting him in the grips of other closeted gay men, and demanding that both parties rid themselves of any sexual desires. 

After finally breaking free from the programs, Ferguson was able to come out as gay, but was left with emotional scars that to this day make physical touch traumatic to him. 

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He was a plaintiff in a New Jersey court case that was one among many to see a judge decry conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice disenfranchising LGBTQ+ people and their families. 

DESPITE LEGAL AND MEDICAL DISREPUTE, A STARTLING NUMBER OF LGBTQ+ PEOPLE STILL UNDERGO CONVERSION THERAPIES 

Nicole Kidman starred in the 2018 film Boy Erased, about a gay teenager in the US South, whose Baptist family tries to 'convert' him

Nicole Kidman starred in the 2018 film Boy Erased, about a gay teenager in the US South, whose Baptist family tries to ‘convert’ him 

Still, the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that about seven percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals have gone through conversion therapy. 

‘And it’s probably underestimated because people might still feel shame for having gone through this experience,’ lead editorial author and Boston Medical Center physician, Dr Carl Streed, told DailyMail.com.

‘My impression is that the amount of medically-sanctioned therapies is falling out of favor but, that being said, it’s still being practiced under the radar. 

‘We talk about the value of [state] bans to protect minors, but that doesn’t protect adults who voluntarily do this or are conned into…people’s methods for trying to change their gender or sexual identity.

‘And a lot the remaining states [that don’t have bans], I am not optimistic, given the make-up of their legislatures, for a policy shift.’ 

DOCTORS NEED TO BAND TOGETHER TO PROTECT VULNERABLE PATIENTS BEYOND THE SCOPE OF BANS 

He wants LGBTQ+ health concerns to finally be part of what medical students are taught, pro forma.  

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If doctors – everyone from pediatricians, to primary care providers and psychologists – had better (or any) awareness of the specific health risks posed to LGBTQ+ people, perhaps they could more readily identify those who might be coerced into conversion therapy. 

And being dragged into these unfounded ‘treatments’ leaves lasting damage, including higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. 

Current LGBTQ care is only ‘a patchwork across the curricula…the topic of conversion is never even addressed’ in most medical schools, Dr Streed says. 

‘I would like to see a federal ban [on conversion therapy], but what it’s going to come down to is a grassroots movement and for healthcare professionals to recognize that our patients continue to suffer under these programs.’ 

And that might take a broad requirement – not a passive hope – that LGBTQ+ issues are incorporated into medical education in the US. 

‘I’ve spoken with many medical school dean who say, “I love the work, but I’m not going to do it until it’s required,”‘ says Dr Streed. 

He’s not surprised by the institutional hesitancy to change, but all the more determined that that change has to happen any way. 

‘This is part of what drives a significant burden of mental health conditions, like anxiety, PTSD and depression,’ he says. 

‘We’re screening for those, but we need to look to the cause, too,’ including conversion therapies.     



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