Does Gay Conversion Therapy actually work?

Conversion Therapy

Back in the days when I attended a pentecostal group as a teen, there was a guy who was deemed to have a bit of a problem, he was attracted to other guys. The church leaders kept it all lowkey and “assisted” by engaging the services of a gay conversion specialist. The net effect is that he was officially “cured” and became ex-gay. He later became married, had four kids, and even went off to be a missionary in some far flung land.

If you stopped at that point then you would have your typical ex-gay conversion success story that is often promoted within such circles. However, I suspect you can guess what comes next.

Your guess was right. Today he and his male partner are in a happy relationship. You can of course be officially “cured” and then proceed to play that role. Inevitably, as with so many of these stories, the curtain falls and a show put on to appease the watching audience will come to a close.

Conversion Therapy: Key Points

No Objective evidence that it works

There is no reliable evidence that sexual orientation can be altered. There are of course numerous ex-gay claims from the religious. We should perhaps remember that the religious tout many different supernatural claims such as miracle cures. In no single instance has any of this ever been objectively verified.

While a great deal of self-reporting is presented, there is not one single case of a truly objective verification. Such a test is possible, for example a measurement of automatic responses to erotic stimuli or other men/women. The lack of such data reveals the truth.

Joseph Nicolosi, a rather well-known practitioner of conversion therapy, was offered the opportunity to conduct a truly scientific measurement of his claimed successes by well-known psychologist J. Michael Bailey. Just bring his “cured” patients to the lab at Northwestern University to test their automatic responses to erotic images and everything could be verified. That offer has been open since 2017 and he has continued to refuse it. Clearly Nicolosi knows deep down that his “cure” does not actually work and that he is simply running a scam.

The Stance taken by the American Psychiatric Association

As far back as 1973, after reviewing the evidence that it was not a mental disorder, they removed it from the DSM

In May 2000 they issued a formal statement in which they explained that the APA …

opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her sexual homosexual orientation.

To be a tad more blunt, they have also subsequently made it distinctly clear that anybody attempting conversion therapy is being unethical.

UK – memorandum of understanding issued in 2015

In 2015, the document known as the “Memorandum of Understanding” was published in the UK. It states …

…Several professional bodies have reviewed the evidence around conversion therapy and concluded there is no good evidence that it works, while there is evidence that it has the potential to cause harm …

…All the major psychological professional bodies in the UK have concluded that conversion therapy is unethical and potentially harmful. ….

They cite references to verify that position.

Signing up to that 2015 Memorandum were …

  • NHS England
  • Association of Christian Counsellors
  • British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies
  • British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
  • British Psychoanalytic Council
  • British Psychological Society
  • National Counselling Society
  • Royal College of General Practitioners
  • Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • UK Council for Psychotherapy

.. and more.

But what about the General medical council?

When they became aware of this then they also signed up.

Basically every professional body of subject matter experts is in the mix here, so if you still want conversion therapy in the UK then your only remaining path is to find a suitably crazy religious fundamentalist who is happy to ignore all the evidence of the harm it does and is prepared to toss all basic medical ethics to one side.

Good luck with the outcome of that.

But the Bible says …

Does it?

OK, let’s take a brief shot at this because it is the alpha source for all of this.

No really, does it actually say what you think it says?

You might want to hit pause while I take you through some of it.

Let me first ask you a question. How do you interpret the bible?

It is a complex multi-faceted text that is very much open to interpretation. There is no universal consensus of understanding, no agreement. If there was, then we would have one denomination, not thousands. Pick almost any core tenant of belief and I’ll point out a variation of Christian belief that does not believe that.

To illustrate that point there are openly gay evangelical Christians.

An Abomination

Leviticus rather famously supposedly condemns being gay. While that is a rather traditional interpretation, what is perhaps not so well known is that the Hebrew text is highly ambiguous. If you read it literally, it is condemning incest not gay relationships.


A gay relationship is sometimes referred to as Sodomy. Slight flaw, the actual story in the bible does not in any way identify that the reason for the destruction was because some of them were gay.

Romans 1

Some read this as a clear condemnation of gay people, but not all read it that way. An alternative understanding is that the text is actually telling people this “If you are not gay then don’t do this”.

Another interesting twist to it all is that the text in Romans is very much at odds with the flow and grammar of the rest, so much so, that it is highly credible to think that it may not have been part of Paul’s original, but was popped in later.

I could go on into it all, but I don’t need to because you hopefully now get the point. The bible might not actually be saying what you think it is saying. It is often deeply vague and so we inherit an understanding from the micro-culture we live it without really thinking about it. It is in many ways a mirror that reflects our own biases and prejudices.

In times past the bible was utilised to justify slavery and yet today nobody would seriously do that. Most would now view that as an ethical abuse of the text. In a similar manner, today it is used by many to justify intolerance and bigotry directed against gay people. Most of our descendants will be horrified that such a rather blatantly unethical stance was adopted.

OK, many of us today hold that view, so come on people, catch up.

So what is going on with Conversion Therapy … legally

The following map (via here) is a nice summary of the current position (at the time of writing) …

Briefly …

  • the blues are nations where variations of Bans on conversion therapy are now in force
  • Yellow is where a proposed ban is in the pipeline and may soon be enacted into legislation

See here on wikipedia for latest status and also for details for each nation.

Well yes, the bible belt in the US looks rather gray, so I guess I can paint you “unsurprised”.

Sometimes people really do see the light on the road to Damascus

One of the most prominent and largest organisations that promoted conversion therapy was Exodus International. Founded in 1976, this predominately evangelical group reached its summit in 2006 with over over 250 local ministries in North America (US and Canada), and another 150 in various other nations.

Today it no longer exists, what happened?

In 2012 the president of the organisation, Alan Chambers, rather famously rejected the entire concept of Conversion Therapy as a complete sham, explaining that it did not actually work at all and only harmed people. A year later he closed the entire organisation and also made the following public apology …

I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.  

More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.

As you might anticipate, it was a defining moment for the decline of Conversion Therapy, yet some of the individual ministries carried on, and so it all rumbles away in the background within various evangelical circles.

As for some of the others involved in leadership there, they also knew it to be a complete sham. An article within The Atlantic in 2015 explains …

Cofounder Michael Bussee left the group in 1979 and entered a relationship with another Exodus leader, Gary Cooper. Bussee would later admit, “I never saw one of our members or other Exodus leaders or other Exodus members become heterosexual, so deep down I knew that it wasn’t true.” Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many former Exodus members became vocal critics of the ministry, claiming it had caused them psychological distress. And in September 2000, Exodus’s chairman John Paulk was photographed cruising for men at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He was ousted from his position and later confessed, “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.

That perhaps is the best insight. Those who devoted their life to the ex-gay ministry, and passionately and sincerely believed in it, discovered that it was all a sham.

Some activists ended up rejecting their religion, while others retained their beliefs by making peace with the reality of their actual sexual orientation and went forward with their lives as Christians who are also openly gay.

There rests the future.

Those that today still deeply embrace the intolerance and bigotry will eventually pass away just as those who once embraced the concept of slavery as “biblical”.

Further Reading

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