On Wednesday, Sam Brinton, the head of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, shared his story of undergoing gay conversion therapy as a middle-schooler in the early 2000s. In addition to “hurtful talk-therapy sessions,” he recounted the physical trauma his Southern Baptist parents forced him to endure simply because he was bisexual.
“The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat and electricity applied to my body,” Brinton wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work.”
While conversion therapy has widely been discredited by major health organizations, a new study out of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimates that 57,000 LGBT teens will undergo the controversial practice from a religious or spiritual advisor. Additionally, another 20,000 will receive similar counseling attempting to change their sexual orientation or gender identity from a licensed healthcare provider in states that don’t ban the practice.
These estimates, the first to paint a picture of how widespread this conversion therapy is in the US, were produced from analyzing previous data collected for the Generations Study, a national probability study of LGB individuals, and the US Trans Survey. Through their analysis, researchers also found that 698,000 LGBT adults (ages 18-59) in the US have undergone conversion therapy—and more than half (350,000) said they received the treatment when they were adolescents.
According to the report, talk therapy is the most commonly used technique, but other treatments include aversion techniques such as inducing vomiting and shock therapy, as well as hypnosis and teaching a person to redirect their thoughts. But the fact that conversion therapy, which has been practiced in the US since the 1890s, is still a thing today is largely disturbing. The American Psychological Association points out that “there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation.” Many professional health organizations have disavowed conversion therapy and have called on lawmakers to ban the practice.
To date, nine states, the District of Columbia, and 32 localities have banned conversion therapy. Although that’s a small portion of the country, the study’s authors estimate that because of these laws, 6,000 LGBT teens were spared from having to endure the awful practice at the hands of a healthcare professional.
But, they continue, the bans that are in place generally only apply to mental health providers and those who provide conversion therapy for money. Religious or spiritual advisors are usually exempt from these bans, and, as a result, tens of thousands of teens across all states will still be forced to receive some kind of cure therapy.
Christy Mallory is the state and local policy director at the Williams Institute and lead author of the study. She tells Broadly that the goal of this report was to give context to “how big of a problem” conversion therapy really is. “We found that even though you hear stories here and there from one or two people, this is actually still ongoing,” she tells Broadly. “A large number of kids will experience this within the next few years, and that’s based on data recently gathered from people, including people who are in the younger cohort of those studies who said they had conversion therapy as adolescents, meaning it was pretty recent. It’s not 60-year-olds saying they had it when they were 14.”
“We found that even though you hear stories here and there from one or two people, this is actually still ongoing.”
More states are expected to consider banning conversion therapy this year. On the federal level, members of Congress introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act in 2017, which, if passed, would make it illegal across the country for a person to provide conversion therapy for sexual orientation or gender identity in exchange for compensation.
But that won’t protect teens who receive this therapy in a religious capacity, Mallory says. Most of the laws we’ve seen thus far have targeted licensed healthcare professionals because, she explains, the remedy is that their licenses can be revoked if they engage in these practices.
“There have been some academics in the field who have written about and suggested this should actually be considered a form of child abuse because it’s harmful for the child,” Mallory says. If that were the case, she explains, parents who are subjecting their kids to this would possibly face charges. “No state has latched onto that yet and passed a law that does that.”
But it may be that many people don’t realize conversion therapy is still legal in 41 states. Mallory says that since the report came out yesterday, she’s had a number of people contact her to say they didn’t realize this was still an issue.
“It surprises me too,” she says, “especially with all of the major medical associations coming out against it and instead sending the message that, actually, affirming therapy is the most healthy for LGBT kids.”