Conversion Therapy Is an 'Open Secret' in Chile

A new bill aims to ban the controversial treatment that claims to 'correct' homosexuality—but it could take years.

Nov 17 2020, 4:29pm

SANTIAGO, Chile - Andre Mazzucchelli remembers the comfortable leather sofa of Dr. Raúl Miserda’s office, and the softness of his voice as he hypnotized her. “Every time he made me sleep, I tried to fight it,” she says. “His goal was to convert me into a heterosexual wife.” 

In 2003, Mazzucchelli was kicked out of her strict Catholic family home after she was caught cuddling her girlfriend. She describes the following period of her life as “a year of doom.” She cut ties with friends, and was denied contact with her family. She abandoned her studies, rented a small room, and spoke to no one.

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At her lowest moment, she walked to a bridge with the intent of throwing herself off it, before retreating in a fit of tears. After months of silence, her parents offered her a deal: Do Miserada’s therapy, and we’ll accept you again. 

It has been thirty years since the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. This year, the United Nations issued a report that called for a global ban on any type of conversion therapy, a widely discredited pseudoscience based on the false and damaging notion that being LGBTQ+ is a mental disorder that can be "cured." 

The report describes the therapy as “humiliating, demeaning, and discriminatory” provoking “extreme humiliation, self-disgust and worthlessness.”

Conversion therapy is banned under all circumstances in Brazil, Malta and Ecuador. Twenty states in the U.S. have restricted it, and in Germany the ban only applies to under-18s. This year, Chile introduced a bill to criminalise the therapy, joining Britain, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand in moving towards an outright prohibition of the practice. 

Mazzucchelli thought Miserda would help her. Instead, she was prescribed four types of antidepressants and made to fall asleep. “He penetrated my mind and put words into my head.”

Her memories of the time are a blur, which she puts down to a mixture of “trauma and hypnosis.”

In Chile, LGBTQ+ adolescents are seven times more likely to contemplate suicide, which activists attribute to pressure and intolerance from their families. Over 50 percent of Chilean gay adolescents have felt “uncomfortable” and “oppressed” by families during obligatory COVID-19 lockdowns.  

The Chilean bill to ban conversion therapy was passed by the Senate's human rights committee in September, and will now move to the wider Senate floor.  But it could take years for politicians to prioritize discussions on the ban and allow it to come into effect. Progressive bills for greater abortion rights and gay marriage have moved slowly between Congress and the Senate, stagnating under the conservative government of Sebastian Piñera.

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Once deemed the most conservative country in the Americas, progressive laws in Chile have been impeded by powerful religious groups linked to the political elite. Chile was one of the last countries in the world to allow divorce in 2004, and had one of the world’s strictest prohibitions of abortion until 2015.  

However, there is hope that Chile’s historic decision in October to bury its 1980 constitution, illegitimately imposed by military dictator Augusto Pinochet, will disrupt the conservative and archaic character of its courts and government. 

Rights activists hope a new constitution will incorporate a diversity perspective, bolstering the current motion to ban conversion therapy. “A new constitution would open a door to all the laws we are trying to pass,” says Ramón Goméz, spokesman for Chile’s largest gay rights organization, MOVILH.

In 2017, MOVILH campaigned for the closure of Fundación Restauración, a clinic in central Santiago that practices “psychotherapy based on Catholic anthropology.” Dr. Marcela Ferrer, the clinic’s founding psychologist, said in a 2014 interview that it is her “calling” to help guide individuals who “suffer” from “same-sex attraction.” 

Chilean PhD researcher Tomás Ojeda investigates sexuality and gender at the London School of Economics. He explains that conversion therapists in Chile, including Ferrer, subscribe to the theories of discredited psychotherapist Richard A. Cohen, a self-described “former homosexual” who preaches methods on how to “correct” homosexuality. Cohen was expelled from the American Counseling Association in 2002. 

Trans activist and lawyer Constanza Valdés says conversion therapy is an “open secret” in Chile, especially in Catholic schools and universities. “These services aren’t promoted publicly, but they exist, in many shapes and forms, especially in religious sectors.”

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She explains that today’s therapies are “strictly psychological” and do not include physical “treatment” associated with earlier so-called gay cure programs, such as hormone injections and electro shocks. 

However, she stresses the mental danger of the therapy. “It can result in suicidal thoughts and depression,” said Valdés.

While rights activists attribute depression to intolerance towards LGBTQ+ groups, Ferrer argues that the “bad quality of life” of gay people justifies conversion therapy. 

“Whether we like it or not [same-sex attraction] goes against human nature,” said Ferrer in 2014. “The closer we stick to what we are created for, the fuller and happier we can be.” 

Inés Contreras was Ferrer’s patient in the early 2010s. Contreras, who is now 41, was experiencing a “crisis” after being exiled from her religious community for confessing her love for another woman. 

Ferrer told her that her homosexuality was a “symptom of a bigger trauma,” before warning that gay lifestyles were compounded by sexually-transmitted diseases, addiction, and sin. “She asked me if I wanted that life — it filled me with anguish,” says Contreras, her voice trembling with quiet rage. “I regret that I gave her so much power.”

After two years of sessions with Ferrer, Contreras was contemplating suicide. She was “saved” by a psychologist friend who begged her to see a different therapist immediately. The new therapy guided her to accept her sexuality and she now lives in a small town on Chile’s coast with her girlfriend Belen, who she has been dating for a year and a half. 

Fundación Restauración still operates in Santiago. When contacted by VICE World News, Ferrer denied any practice of conversion therapy and said that “the foundation works with family and personal dysfunctions.” Meanwhile, Miserda’s clinic, The Institute of Infinite Change, advertises hypnosis to cure trauma and phobia. He did not reply to requests for comment from VICE World News.

Mazzucchelli quit her sessions with Miserda and left Chile to start over in Australia. She returned after six years and now lives with her longtime girlfriend who she plans to marry. She says her guilt was finally lifted when she introduced her partner to her parents. “It never was my problem. It was theirs.”

“Conversion therapy does not work,” says Mazzucchelli. “You can only lie to yourself for so long.”

Tagged:

Homophobia, queer, world politics, worldnews

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