Pray the Gay Away: Conversion Therapy, Suicide, Religion, and the First Amendment

Pray the Gay Away: Conversion Therapy, Suicide, Religion, and the First Amendment

Image by waldryano from Pixabay.

Your sexuality is a result of your childhood abuse. You are only the person you are because your father was absent. If you had only had more male influence in your life, you would not be the person that you are, but it can be fixed. Perhaps you need God, or perhaps you need to reflect on what happened in your childhood that made you the way that you are so that you can move on from it. Your sexuality is an ailment that you must cure.

Thousands of LGBTQ+ youths in the world have heard those words come from the mouths of faith leaders or therapists – or even worse – their own families, in a misguided attempt to change their sexuality. These are words commonly heard during a form of gay conversion therapy called ‘talk therapy,’  in which a faith leader or a supposed therapist attempts to ‘cure’ a person of their sexuality by attempting to associate it with some traumatic event or the environment in which the person grew up in. Gay conversion therapy (GCT) has reared its ugly head in various forms over the years, ranging from electroshock therapy, aversion therapy, to ‘talk’ therapy, but all have a common denominator: they associate homosexuality with an illness and teach people that they can ‘pray the gay away.’ In modern times, ‘talk’ therapy is the most common technique used, in which a therapist or a faith leader will tell an LGBTQ+ youth that through the power of prayer, their sexuality can be changed. This type of supposed therapy is merely a distilled version of the societal pressures that already exist in the life of an LGBTQ+ youth struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. As I will explain through personal experience, these therapists and faith leaders use several techniques that a large portion of LGBTQ+ youth deal with already: the idea that they can change their sexuality, the power of prayer in removing their sexuality, and the thought that if a person wants it hard enough, they can remove the ‘stain’ of their sexuality.

In the United States, gay conversion therapy (GCT) has not been banned nationally, although twenty states have issued laws banning therapists from practicing it. While the Supreme Court has refused to hear several cases involving challenges to laws banning GCT, recently the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a local law banning the practice as an unconstitutional regulation on the First Amendment right of speech. This ruling disappointingly confuses ideas of First Amendment protections with what amounts to psychological torture of our youth. It must be noted that while bans on GCT have been successfully upheld as constitutional in other regions, the laws only ban the practice for licensed therapists, not for clergy or any other religiously affiliated organization who wish to use the practice on the youth. This distinction will be discussed later.

A Thought, a Wish, and a Prayer

Figure 1: LGBTQ+ Individuals Reporting Feelings of Discrimination (Source: The Trevor Project)                                                                Figure 2: LGBTQ+ Individuals Reporting Attempts to Change Their Sexuality (Source: The Trevor Project)

I knew that if I just asked for forgiveness and believed hard enough, I would lose this affliction. If I truly repent and pray harder, I will lose this pain, this deformity that exists within me. I must really want it, though; I know I cannot be myself because being myself means eternal damnation. I prayed at the pew every Sunday to be relieved of this abomination. I was willing to give this part of me away if it meant that I would no longer have to suffer through this sin. No matter how hard I tried, these thoughts and feelings would not leave me. Was there something wrong with me? Why have I been forsaken? A deep pit of despair, depression, and desolation formed inside me like a growing tumor I could not carve out. If even God cannot save me from myself, all I have left is shame. Shame I will bring to my family when they find out; shame my friends will carry for having to associate with a person who cannot fix his error. You cannot fix this no matter how hard you try. What must have happened to you to cause this?

I was born and raised in McComb, Mississippi. McComb is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone. There was never a trip to the local store without running into someone you know. Poverty is rampant — the median income for the city comes in at $27,000 with almost half of the city falling under the poverty line. In terms of religiosity, 63% of the city identifies as either Catholic, Evangelical, or Baptist, though the number is surely higher. The two threads that tie the town together are poverty and religion.

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels.

As a teen, I struggled with acceptance of myself. I was a broke kid attending a public school in a heavily religious society struggling with his sexuality. Anything considered outside of the norm is chastised and kept out of the forefront to avoid any further exposure. In the South, rather than facing problems head-on, we prefer to pretend like they do not exist. “Let Go and Let God” is an all-too-often heard saying, and it permeates every aspect of Southern life and culture. Religion is the blood that runs through the veins of the county, the state, and the culture. Even in a room full of people, you are all alone.

As many may know from their own experience, Christianity has traditionally taken a negative stance against homosexuality. The Church views homosexuality as a sin as established in the Old Testament.  Viewing a part of someone’s being as a sin is the basis of the oft-heard saying, “I support you, I just do not support your lifestyle.” The natural way to interpret this, of course, is to see that a person loves you despite the abomination that you are. What is my lifestyle? Is acceptance of self a lifestyle?

All I knew in my youth was the idea that homosexuality was a sin, not a part of self. I was raised Catholic — the hellfire and brimstone kind. For many years of my adolescence, I believed that any time I had an ailment or a problem in my life, it was traceable to a mistake I made. Even headaches meant I had upset God in some way. Needless to say, homosexuality was not an issue that any church I had ever attended accepted. Naturally, as I reached adolescence and began to realize I was interested in men, I could never let anyone know. I could not understand what I had done to deserve this, as surely, this was punishment for something I had done. I could not pray hard enough and it was because there was something broken within me. I had no one to blame but myself, as God would not have burdened me with this evil otherwise. How could anyone ever love me if I can never love myself? How could I be okay with myself if my very existence is a sin?

These thoughts nearly killed me several times. Thoughts of suicide came daily and depression was a fight I just could not seem to win. I could not share with anyone what I was dealing with out of fear of rejection – or judgment – thus, I kept these thoughts to myself. The lack of acceptance was evident all around me: in church, school, my daily life; in the passing conversations people have when they do not know who you truly are. No one can know because no one will love you. This is a burden you carry yourself. You hear what they say.

External and Internal Pressure Leads Us to Psychological Torture

A Photo of the Author at Southern Decadence, the Pride Celebration in New Orleans.

My story is not unique, and those who end up on the receiving end of ‘talk therapy’ fare worse. The most unique aspect of my story is that I was eventually able to overcome these thoughts about myself with support around me. I learned that harboring all the anger within myself for who I was did nothing to change me. Unfortunately, many did not have those same support groups I had. I had a mother who accepted me for who I was and a group of friends who supported me when I finally felt confident enough to share myself.

The pressures discussed above combine to create an environment where a person wants to escape from themselves. They will reach for many harmful practices offered up as a ‘solution,’ and end up in some form of GCT, whether with a faith leader or a therapist. Many LGBTQ+ individuals report feeling unwelcome or pressured by their religious peers to seek redemption from their sexuality. Further, LGBTQ+ people were pressured to ‘talk therapy’ by their families, or the societal pressures described above. Several in my own life are gone now because of the societal pressures that cause individuals to feel as if they should be ashamed of their sexuality. LGBTQ+ individuals are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts, six times more likely to have depression, and three times more likely to develop a drug habit.

What drives this number? There are several factors to look to for the answer to this question, but the main answers stem from religion, family, and location. While all religion is not anti-LGBTQ+, the idea that “homosexuality is a sin” has been commonplace in our society since the founding of this country. Along with this belief comes the idea that if you pray hard enough, God can “cure” you of your sin. It is at the very core of this belief that we get the idea of GCT, or as it is called in the circles that accept it, “reparative therapy.”

The Homosexuality Cure

“Male homosexuals,” Dr. Samuel Hadden remarked, “are more treatable than is generally believed.” Dr. Hadden believed homosexuality stemmed from a negative relationship with their parents, and for males, an “unhealthy” relationship with the mother. In other words, he believed that homosexuality was a result of having an absent father. This belief permeated the psychiatric community in the 19th century, although it was called “reparative therapy” at the time. Psychiatry viewed homosexuality as a mental illness that could be cured or “conditioned” out of a person. Doctors used extremely barbaric practices in the name of psychiatry during this time that included lobotomies, electro-shock therapy, and ‘aversion therapy.’ Look at the lengths they will go to fix you.

Aversion therapy involved doctors using techniques that forced association of homosexual thoughts with something negative so they could ‘cure’ the ‘disease’ through this form of association. For example, some doctors would use electric shocks to a male’s genitals when the patient was presented with a photo of another naked male in an attempt to force the association of pain with their sexuality. Other times, LGBTQ+ individuals were put in mental asylums and given lobotomies in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of their ‘disorder.’

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

This form of psychological torture was discredited beginning in the late seventies; however, this alone did not mean that the practice ended. Psychiatry began categorizing negative feelings towards one’s own sexuality as “ego-dystonic sexual orientation”, which meant it was internalized homophobia that made a person sick, not the sexuality itself. This belief still permeates some circles today. While the psychiatric field began to stray away from these types of barbaric practices, the religious community picked up where the doctors had left off.

When doctors started denouncing various forms of GCT, churches filled the void. Ex-gay ministries started cropping up during the years where the psychiatric community began retracting their stances on homosexuality. An ex-gay ministry is essentially a group of people professing to be “ex-homosexuals who were ‘cured”  of their sexuality through the power of prayer. Those who grew up in conservative and religious families were more likely to be sent to these ministries as a possible treatment for their sexuality. One such group, Love in Action, found massive enrollment into the program during the late seventies. While the creator of this group eventually came out and admitted that the program did nothing but cause depression in those who found out they would never be “cured” no matter how much they prayed or pretended to be straight, the damage had already been done. In his own words, the creator described what his work had wrought:

I realized that through my own desperate attempts to alter my own sexuality, I also led thousands of others down that fraught path. Year after year, the same stories surfaced about distressed people falling away to their own shame caused by the conditional messages that if they didn’t become ‘straight’ it was their own fault.

These type of statements are all too common from the ex-leaders of these types of ministries. A common thread seemed to be that they all knew what they had done was wrong, as they experienced the same pains themselves, and yet, they continued to encourage many LGBTQ+ individuals to join their ministries.

With the rise and fall of GCT within the psychiatric community and the subsequent re-emergence of it in religious circles, those tasked with exposing the world to the dangers of the psychological torture it put people through failed. While the American Psychiatric Association made note of the possibility of depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety tied to these types of therapy, they stopped short of banning the use of it by their doctors. The void in communication related to the dangers this posed to LGBTQ+ youth led to the continued acceptance, or at the very least acquiescence, of GCT into the present era. The LGBTQ+ rights movement that was propelled from the Stonewall Riots began to push back on many of the failures of professionals in the psychiatric field in terms of spreading the truth of the dangers that exist — not because of our sexuality — but because of the way that society treats it.

What’s the Law Got to Do With It?

Photo by Denin Lawley on Unsplash.

In 2010, the Supreme Court, after decades of anti-LGBTQ+ rulings, began strengthening LGBTQ+ rights, issuing rulings that banned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), found bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and even solidified LGBTQ+ worker’s rights. To many, these rulings meant the LGBTQ+ rights movement had been vindicated. However, for those of us who identify as LGBTQ+, we knew the fight was just beginning. LGBTQ+ youth still face immense challenges in their day-to-day lives, from their families, friends, communities, and churches. The daily struggle that exists within a person: the fear, the shame, the doubt, the pain, cannot be merely legislated or waived away. The deep stains of the past still tarnish the tattered flag of equality, and though we scrub until our hands are prune, deep down we know it will take more than a mere rinse to remove this blemish.

With the issues of marriage and adoption being settled by the Supreme Court, LGBTQ+ rights began to take a backseat in the media. Issues like employment, housing, discrimination, and how to address youth LGBTQ+ issues fell out of the news. However, this did not mean the problem did not exist. Quite the opposite. According to the UCLA Williams Institute, 16,000 youth will be subject to gay conversion therapy in the 32 states that still allow this practice to continue. Almost a million LGBTQ+ individuals currently alive in the United States have been put through GCT at some point in their lives. According to that same study, almost 10,000 youth will be saved from GCT by living in states that currently ban the practice.

However, there have been challenges to the laws that ban conversion therapy, and the lower courts have not come to a consensus on the constitutionality of these bans. In 2020, a Trump-appointed judge in Florida ruled that bans on gay conversion therapy violated the First Amendment right to free speech, which resulted in the ability of therapists to use this barbaric practice once again.

In that case, a group of religious therapists challenged the ban of GCT on the youth in Boca Raton. They argued that the banning of certain types of therapy infringed on their First Amendment right to free speech. While the District Court for the Southern District of Florida denied their request for a preliminary injunction, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and scorned the lower court for not addressing the case. According to the record, the therapists argued that the prohibitions on therapy were speech-related restrictions that could not survive constitutional analysis. The law in question banned:

[A]ny counseling, practice or treatment performed with the goal of changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including, but not limited to, efforts to change behaviors, gender identity, or gender expression, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender or sex.

The therapists maintained that because the content being regulated is speech and speech only, it falls under complete First Amendment protection. The city argued in the alternative that because of serious health risks posed to the youth by subjecting them to this type of controversial therapy, it had a compelling governmental interest in regulating this type of speech.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was not swayed by the city’s argument. The majority stated that “whether therapy is prohibited only on the contents of the words used in that therapy, and the ban on that content is because the government disagrees with it. And whether the government’s disagreement is for good reasons, great reasons, or terrible reasons has nothing to do with it.” The court did not find statements from the American Psychological Association (APA) and many other medical professionals convincing:  “we cannot allow a new consensus to justify restrictions on speech.”  After all, the court opined, the APA itself recognized homosexuality as a mental illness until the 1970s. “People who hurt children can be held accountable,” the court stated, but the way this happens is through “tort law and malpractice suits, not First Amendment regulations.”

This ruling showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what GCT entails, and the level of protection the supposed ‘speech’ should receive. Regulations on protected speech are analyzed under strict scrutiny, which requires the government to put forth a compelling interest in regulating the speech at issue, as well as prove that the law is narrowly tailored to address the problem. Under this level of scrutiny, laws are rarely upheld on the local level, as a recent report found that only 17% of local laws are upheld under a strict scrutiny analysis. It was under this strict scrutiny test that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found the laws unconstitutional, as Boca Raton was not able to show that the government had a “compelling interest” in censoring the speech. If the well-being of the youth and an interest in protecting our minors from harm in a psychiatric setting is not a compelling interest, what possibly would be?

The law, it is important to note, does not prevent a therapist from expressing the view that homosexuality is morally wrong, nor does it prevent them from offering alternative views as to how to confront sexuality. What the law did, however, was prevent licensed therapists from attempting to change a person’s sexuality. As modern medicine and psychiatry has found, the only outcomes observed concerning this practice were increases in self-harm, suicidal thought, depression, self-hate, and in the worst cases, suicide.

Indeed, as the dissent in this case noted, there was a plethora of information proving evidence of the harmful outcomes related to GCT being used on our youth. However, as Justice Martin stated in the dissent, “it seems that no study would satisfy the majority” into believing that the government has a right to regulate this type of ‘therapy.’ Judge Martin found that even under a strict scrutiny analysis, “narrow regulation of a harmful medical practice affecting vulnerable minors falls within the narrow band of permissibility of [regulation of speech].

Step back for a second. When discussing this issue in a First Amendment context, it is easy to remove a face from this issue. What we are talking about is using a therapist to attempt to remove a portion of one’s self through prayer or conditioning. Sexuality is not ‘removable,’ any more than sex or race can be. Further, the idea that the government does not have a compelling interest in preventing this type of psychological abuse against already struggling group of our youth is not based on reality or law. We do not allow doctors to offer archaic treatments proven not to work. The courts have had no problem upholding laws that ban doctors from offering assisted suicide. So how is it that something proven to do nothing but cause potentially fatal harm to the youth could be found to be covered as protected free speech?

The Ninth Circuit seemed to follow the same rationale I have expressed here. In Pickup v. Brown, another GCT case, the court found that the laws banning GCT were a valid exercise of the police powers of the state. The court found that there are three levels to First Amendment protection for professionals with varying levels of protection for each. When professionals are engaged in “public dialogue,” protections are at their strongest. The next level exists “within the confines of a professional relationship,” an area in which First Amendment rights are diminished in favor of state regulations. The least protective level exists at the point of “professional conduct,” at which point the state’s powers to regulate are at their highest. The state finds that the law in question regulates “conduct,” as it does not prevent the therapist from discussing the benefits or negatives of using GCT. “Pursuant to it’s police power, [the state] has authority to regulate licensed medical health providers administration of therapies that the legislature has deemed harmful.” As the court stressed, the First Amendment “does not prevent a state from regulating treatment even when that treatment is performed through speech alone.”

As stated above, the Supreme Court has thus far refused to hear any challenges to laws banning GCT. While the refusal to hear challenges to the bans may seem like a win for advocates of the laws, this has resulted in a mixed bag of jurisprudence from the circuit courts in relation to the issue. To make matters even more difficult, even in the states that have successfully kept their laws, there is a gaping deficiency: none of these laws regulate non-licensed leaders, like religious groups, from continuing the practice. Of course, to regulate a religious body would be to begin regulating religion and belief, so this would not be practical, but it is an important piece of the topic that needs some further detail to explain why this practice will not be going anywhere anytime soon.

What Can We Do?

This fight starts in our homes. It starts in our pews, at our dinner tables. While the government has no place in preventing religious groups from spreading a message, it is the place of society as a whole to push back on this barbaric practice. That a parent would subject their child to what amounts to psychological torture to ‘fix’ them would indicate that the harms of this practice have not been adequately communicated. So, the next time you hear a conversation, the next time you hear someone using a gay slur, the next time you hear someone tell another that “they love them, they just don’t love their lifestyle,” remember to push back on that statement. It is in our own lives that we begin the work of changing perceptions and views. Telling our youth that they can be “fixed” of their sexuality has no place in modern society and results in nothing but pain, depression, and suicide for those who have dealt with the effects of this mentality. It is far past time for us to begin to pick up the pieces around us so that we can work towards a better society for all, not just some.

Photo by Brian Kyed on Unsplash.

This practice will continue in religious circles, regardless of the laws that may ban it from psychologists and therapists’ offices. However, there exists some hope that even within those circles, minds are beginning to change. Pope Francis recently spoke at length about LGBTQ+ individuals: “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.” This may not seem like much to many, but for the Catholic Church, this is a huge step in the right direction. Religious leaders of the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, and other denominations indicated recently they support the bans of the practice, which is a welcome break from historical support. To date, over three-hundred religious leaders have called for the end to these controversial practices. Even the nation’s leading GCT ministry recently came out against the practice and admitted that he has done more harm than good as well as admitting the practice never “cured” him of his sexuality. However, sometimes it is not merely the pressure from a therapist or a religious leader that leads an LGBTQ+ individual to GCT, but something much deeper: our inner shame.

It was not a therapist or a preacher that led me down the path of trying to rid myself of my sexuality. It was a combination of a lifetime worth of being told homosexuality was a sin, society condemning same-sex marriage, and hearing friends use homophobic phrases anytime they sought to express their displeasure about an issue that helped build the negative stereotype I held of myself. “That’s gay!” has been a phrase in the English lexicon so long that you will even hear LGBTQ+ people say it. While laws can go a long way in preventing children from being subject to what I find to be psychological torture, the issue still exists within the youth struggling to come to terms with themselves. We must do better at communicating to our youth that there is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ+, and that effort starts at home with our family, friends, and associates. Sometimes even small talk can stick with a person forever and become the focal point for every negative thought they harbor about themselves. No law can prevent this from happening, so this is an issue we, as a society, will have to address without the court’s assistance.

You can get through this. You are not broken. You are you, and there is nothing in the world you should be more proud of.

3 Responses

  1. I can’t even begin to express how proud I am of not only what you are accomplishing, but who you are! You have come so far, and I can’t wait to see where you go. I pray you continue to stand fast in who YOU are, someone I love dearly!

  2. I’m so proud of you!! And I wouldn’t want you any other way!!! I love you!

  3. I am so happy that you made it through this and I pray that your article helps get others through. Thanks for sharing

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