OPINION: Curing the global demand for 'conversion therapy'

by Maria Sjödin | OutRight Action International
Thursday, 22 August 2019 13:22 GMT

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Conversion therapy shows how feared LGBT+ people are around the world and is deeply harmful. So how can societies tackle it?

Maria Sjödin is Deputy Director of Outright Action International

The term “conversion therapy” has been appearing more frequently in headlines and public discourse around the world, as local and national level bans are considered in countries ranging from Canada to Mexico, Germany and New Zealand.

But what conversion therapy actually is, to what extent it occurs globally, why is it so important to tackle and how best to do so is lacking from these discussions.

Conversion therapy is the most widely used term to describe practices that aim to change, suppress, or divert one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

These barbaric practices are perpetrated predominantly by people acting in the name of religion and pseudo-healthcare, often with pressure or coercion by families, according to a report released this week by OutRight Action International.

The report paints a chilling picture.

These practices vary depending on religious, cultural, or traditional contexts and range in their levels of psychological and physical violence. But, regardless of the form it takes or the name attributed to it, conversion therapy is not therapy at all. And it certainly does not result in “conversion”, instead causing deep and lasting trauma.

The existence and prevalence of conversion therapy is directly related to just how unaccepted and feared LGBT+ people are in many societies around the world.

It hinges on the belief that cisgender heterosexuality is the only accepted norm, and transgender identities and same-sex attraction are an anomaly, a sickness, and something to be “reoriented”, “changed” or “cured” - if need be by brutal, inhuman force.

Where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia prevail, so too do stigma, discrimination, and violence — all manifestations of social norms that dictate that being LGBT+ is unacceptable.

In these conditions, internalised fear of one's identity also prevails, leading LGBT+ people themselves to seek change or cure, as well as be subjected by families, schools, faith communities, and traditional practitioners to psychological and sometimes physical forms of torture.

Such practices are the epitome of what the LGBT+ movement has been fighting, and symptomatic of just how much of an uphill battle we still have to gain acceptance and equality around the world.

So what can we do to cure the demand for conversion therapy?

It is encouraging to see local and national governments discuss potential bans or policies to tackle the practices.

Bans are incredibly important, as they send a strong message that LGBTIQ people are not in need of “change” or “cure”, that we are accepted and respected just the way we are. Thus they go a long way in changing the societal perceptions that drive the existence of conversion therapy.

Furthermore, these practices are not grounded in science or medicine. So medical professionals offering such services should have their licenses revoked.

Similarly, religious groups that subject people to practices that have been recognised to be tantamount to torture by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should also face consequences. Religious belief can no longer serve as a cover for inhuman treatment. 

Perhaps most importantly, such practices cannot be tackled in isolation.

The demand for conversion therapy will only diminish when social, family, and religious condemnation of LGBT+ lives ceases. As such, any efforts to tackle conversion therapy have to be accompanied by other measures designed to promote understanding, acceptance and inclusion of LGBT+ people.

 As OutRight's study shows, conversion therapy is a global phenomenon. So we have to work across civil society, states and multilateral organisations to not only ban conversion therapy, but to ensure the sustainable and genuine safeguarding of the human rights of all LGBT+ people around the world.