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Gay ‘conversion therapy’: The danger of letting bias rather than evidence guide medical practice

Also called reparative therapy, conversion therapy has been thoroughly debunked as being not only ineffective, but also potentially cruel and dangerous.

Marcus Bachmann, husband of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, has admitted that his clinics do conversion therapy, but only, he says, if the patient requests it.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

Last week, the California state legislature became the first in the country to ban so-called gay conversion therapy for minors. Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to either sign or veto the bill. Or he can do nothing and let the bill’s provisions take effect Jan. 1, 2013, without his signature.

Also called reparative therapy, gay conversion therapy’s primary purpose is to change (“convert”) the sexual orientation of individuals. The practice has been thoroughly debunked as being not only ineffective, but also potentially cruel and dangerous. Anecdotal evidence suggests that conversion therapy can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

Earlier this year, Dr. Robert Spitzer, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, made a very public apology for a 2003 paper he published in a prestigious medical journal in which he had claimed that conversion therapy could work on “highly motivated” individuals. He acknowledged that the paper’s methodology had serious flaws and retracted its findings.

Also earlier this year, the Orlando-based Christian group Exodus International, which had spent decades trying to “cure” gay people’s sexual orientation, announced that it would no longer engage in such efforts.

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It’s unclear how many other religious groups are abandoning the discredited “therapy.” Here in Minnesota, undercover gay-rights activists claimed last year that  treatment clinics co-owned by Rep. Michele Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, engage in conversion therapy. Marcus Bachmann has admitted that his clinics do such therapy, but only, he says, if the patient requests it. 

The California ban, by the way, would apply only to licensed therapists. Religious and other groups would be free to continue “counseling” minors with reparative therapy.

Long and ugly history

Last Friday, in the wake of the passage of the landmark California legislation, Lindsay Abrams, an editorial fellow at the Atlantic Health channel, wrote a brief but fascinating article on the long and ugly history of conversion therapy. Her summary of that history, which draws heavily on a longer 2008 article by Timothy Murphy in the journal Gay and Lesbian Review, is a reminder of how much unnecessary suffering can result from medical “therapies” that are supported by biases rather than evidence.

Here’s an excerpt:

[Such efforts began] in the late nineteenth century, with a neurologist prescribing vigorous bicycling to “restore health and heterosexuality.” From there, methods for “curing” homosexuality get progressively stranger.

Multiple psychologists once recommended heterosexual intercourse — aided, in one case, by hypnosis and copious amounts of alcohol — as the most straightforward solution to conversion. Unfortunately, the other thing that wasn’t curable in those days was STDs. In the 1980s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson updated the practice through the use of “sexual surrogates.”

Meanwhile in Germany, replacing a patient’s testicles like faulty light bulbs caught hold. It sounds like a sick Nazi experiment, because it was. Dr. Eugen Steinach, whose practice of removing one testicle from a homosexual male and replacing it with one from a heterosexual donor was, insists one writer, “a logical culmination of his experiments on the sex glands.” Again, in the 1980s, this line of thinking was adapted to the idea that homosexuality begins in the womb, and a German researcher theorized that it could be prevented through the manipulation of sex hormones during pregnancy.

The same doctor who, in the 1950s, recommended brothels, also reported treating homosexuality by threatening patients with beatings. In 1963, aversion therapy went DIY, with the innovation of “a small electroshock device that would be suitable for home use.” But the award for most creative attempt at convincing gays that their sexual preference is gross goes to British psychologist I. Oswald, who in 1962 “inject[ed] a man with nausea-inducing drugs, repeatedly playing audiotapes of men engaging in sex and surrounding the man with glasses of urine.”

You can read Abrams’ article on the Atlantic website. You can read Murphy’s longer article in the Gay and Lesbian Review online.