Conversion Therapy Isn’t Therapy

Before I became an author, I was a therapist for almost thirty years. I’m completely confounded by the controversy over conversion therapy (applying pain during same-sex attraction, as an example, supposedly leading to a “conversion” to being straight).  I’m confounded because this practice is so horrifying it defies reason. But for the purposes of (hopefully) putting this issue to bed once and for all, I’m setting aside my horror to write.

Let’s break it down.

The goal of therapy is for patients to heal and live full, healthy lives, by their own definitions of “full” and “healthy”, to the best of their abilities. Important parts of a healthy life are emotions, identity, friends, home, career. And yes, sexuality and gender identity.

So how does therapy work? How can people change by talking to a therapist? Here’s an example. 

When a patient takes unresolved feelings about an important person in his past and superimposes those feelings on the therapist, it’s called transference. For example, if a patient has a mother who was mean to him, then he might start feeling like his therapist is being mean. This gives the patient an opportunity to fully experience a problem from the past, with the therapist, in the safety of the office, and gain a new understanding.

To help the patient, the therapist needs to NOT become mean like the patient’s mom. Instead, the therapist needs to show the patient how he brings his relationship with his mother to other relationships, and how this causes him to relive his unhealthy past again and again. 

The same is true for sexuality and gender identity. Which brings me to conversion therapy. There are several problems here. 

First, torturing patients in the name of “conversion” from anything or to anything — that’s not therapy. That’s using your (the therapist’s) power over the patient to hurt them. Which says something deeply disturbing about your (the therapist’s) character.

Next. Causing physical pain to a patient is a violation, and will be experienced as an assault. Why is it experienced as an assault? Because it is an assault. Which means the therapist has become an assailant (not a transference assailant, an actual assailant).

The next next. As a therapist, we have no kit of doctor tools; we are the kit of doctor tools. It’s every therapist’s responsibility to know what they do well, and when to refer to another therapist. All therapists need to know which patients make them so uncomfortable that they can’t feel empathy. If you are off-the-charts uncomfortable with a patient who is LGBTQ+, then you shouldn’t treat them. (And for the record, I suggest you sort out why the LGBTQ+ community makes you so angry that you want to hurt them, so uncomfortable that you want their LGBTQ-ness to convert, under torture, to cis-ness and straight-ness…which will derail their core identity…which is diametrically opposed to anything therapeutic.) 

The final next: if you were half of the therapist you want to believe you are, then you’d know that Conversion Therapy Doesn’t Work. 

Why doesn’t it work?

Full stop. Think for a moment. However you define yourself on the gender and sexual spectrum, please follow along. 

Trigger Warning: I’m about to flip things up-side-down. 

Suppose you’re a straight man. Try to imagine the effect on you if someone hurt you physically every time you felt attraction to a woman. Would you make a nice, clean leap to becoming gay? Would torture lead to a grand therapeutic epiphany: I’M GAY! I’M FINALLY CURED OF MY EVIL STRAIGHT-NESS! Of course not. 

Why not?

Because that’s not how humans are wired. If you’re straight, then you’re straight. Hurting you will scare you, enrage you, force you to hide your true self. And at that point, things become complicated emotionally. If we can’t be true to ourselves, we try to hide ourselves not only from others, but also from our own selves. Our emotions become twisted and convoluted. This can result in confusion, depression, anxiety, even suicide. 

We have an enormous problem in our country with the lack of understanding and open hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community. We have a long way to go. But we can’t have a reasonable conversation, we can’t open a healthy dialogue, unless conversion therapy is off the table. You may as well sanction water boarding.  

If you’re a therapist and you’re consumed with intense vitriol toward the LGBTQ+ community (or toward anyone), I strongly suggest you turn in your badge and change careers. You shouldn’t be a therapist. And as you should know from your profession, carrying such an intense level of hatred and rage is pathological. 

You need help.


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