Congratulations to President Obama and his administration in calling for an end to therapies aimed at “repairing” gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Such “conversion therapies” involve a set of dangerous practices that attempt to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity and have been linked to lifelong damage – especially for children.
While it is necessary to protect the freedom of parents to rear their children as they see fit, a line must be drawn when parents, even those who are misinformed but well-meaning, are unaware of potential consequences of their actions. Countless children have already suffered emotional pain, shame and subsequent depression because they were subjected to totally discredited practices like conversion therapy. It is because of such outcomes that every reputable health and mental health organization has warned against such misguided practices.
I have been teaching and practicing psychotherapy at Duke University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences for more than three decades, and over the years, my perspective on matters of reversing sexual orientation or gender identity has changed radically.
Early in my career, as a student and practitioner, I was taught that psychotherapists could change a person’s sexual orientation.
As someone who was trained in the “talking cure,” I could reassure myself that our methods were humane and certainly lacked the brutality of the electric shocks being administered by our behavior therapist colleagues. The behavior therapists of that era would attach straps to arms and ankles of self-identified homosexuals, show them photos of nude, same-sexed individuals and zap them with electric current when they became aroused. As one might imagine, the only thing that changed as a result of such barbarity was the intensity of guilt and self-loathing experienced by the patients.
Those of us who relied on more old-school psychotherapy were not so cruel, at least not blatantly so. Those with same-sex attractions, so we were taught, suffered from a genuine mental illness that could be cured. Little could we have appreciated that our methods only shamed and coerced their true selves into hiding. It is no wonder – and something for which I feel deep and lasting sorrow – that a generation of people, the ones we were telling ourselves we were helping, suffered so profoundly, many taking their own lives.
They continue to take their lives even today because, unable to change,
they feel like they have failed themselves, their parents, their church and, yes, even their therapists. Youth are especially vulnerable to these forms of psychotherapies. The Center for Disease Control estimates that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. One study of transgender youth reported that 25 percent have made suicide attempts.
For all the work and research on this subject, and for all the patients I have seen whose identity and orientation remained steadfast, nothing strengthened my resolve to speak out more than when my youngest daughter, a junior in high school at the time, came out to my wife and me. Honestly, we were stunned. Not unlike many other parents, it took months for us to acclimate to her reality. But from that very first telling, one thing was never in question: We loved her unconditionally for who she was, and our love continues for the remarkable person she continues to be.
For many years I have been presenting to clergy, college campuses and departments of psychiatry – even the Psychiatry Department of the U.S. Army – on the ghastly and shameful history of the harm inflicted by mental health professionals to LGBT people. Enough already. Conversion therapy is not only ineffective, it causes irrevocable harm.
As President Obama has encouraged us to consider, much of what becomes of the LGBT child depends on that child’s family, friends, teachers and community. “But,” he adds, “it also depends on us – on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.” We have a solemn obligation to protect the innocent and vulnerable among us. Let us embrace all children, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, and reassure them that we accept them for the very special people they are.
William S. Meyer is an associate clinical professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Ob/Gyn at Duke University Medical Center.