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In recent months the term “conversion therapy” has gone from being a largely invisible phenomenon to appearing in news headlines across North America, Europe and Australia. And as local and national governments consider conversion therapy bans — in countries ranging from the Maldives to Germany, in U.S. states, Canada and New Zealand — awareness about so-called practices that aim to change, suppress or divert one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression in these regions has grown.
What has not been known until now, however, is that conversion therapy takes place in every region of the world, including and especially in regions which do not appear in the news.
Last month, OutRight Action International published the groundbreaking report “Harmful Treatment: The Global Reach of So-Called Conversion Therapy,” providing a first glimpse into the global reach of so-called conversion therapy and the harmful effect it has on those subjected to it. While we cannot estimate the exact prevalence or proportion of LGBTQ people affected, we can definitively say that such practices are harming LGBTQ people in every corner of the world. Perpetrated in the name of religion or pseudo-healthcare, and with varying degrees of psychological and physical abuse, these practices never work, and they cause deep, lasting trauma.
The existence and prevalence of conversion therapy is directly related to just how deeply unaccepted and feared LGBTQ people are in societies around the world. At the core of these practices is the belief that cis-gender heterosexuality is the norm, and gender identities beyond the binary and same-sex attraction not only fall outside the norm but need to be reoriented, changed or cured.
It is particularly shocking that of the 22% of survey respondents who had undergone some sort of conversion therapy, about one-third had sought it out themselves, whether due to family, religious or societal pressure. This speaks to the profound effects that homophobia and transphobia have on the lives of LGBTIQ people — and how hard it is to be at peace and accept yourself when your family or your faith condemns, shames or even ostracizes you.
Of the 22% of respondents who had undergone conversion therapy, one-third had sought it out themselves.
Fifty years after the modern LGBTQ movement began, the report paints a chilling picture of just how much more we have to fight for in order for LGBTQ people to be accepted for who we are, and to be able to live our lives without hate, violence and persecution.
Only four countries around the world ban conversion therapy. Several others have partial bans, and several more are in the process of considering bans. There need to be far more countries jumping on this bandwagon, and soon. Policies and legislation banning conversion therapy are incredibly important, as they send a powerful message not only that conversion therapy does not work, but also that subjecting anyone to such practices is illegal. They also provide a form of recourse for victims.
Moreover, the practices are not therapy, nor do they result in conversion. The junk science they are based on needs to be exposed and condemned by organizations like the WHO. Medical licenses of health professionals who offer conversion therapy need to be revoked.
There is also a strong role for religious leaders. Religious belief cannot be used as a justification for inhuman treatment any longer. Religious leaders have a moral responsibility to condemn such practices, and take steps to ensure communities of faith embrace their LGBTQ members.
Ultimately efforts to convert, change or reorient LGBTQ people’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression will only end when LGBTQ people are embraced for who we are and are able to access our full human rights. Conversion therapy is a manifestation of both societal and internalized homophobia and transphobia, and it’s fueled by messages that being LGBTQ is pathological, disordered and unacceptable. This is what has to change. As such, any efforts to tackle conversion therapy have to go hand-in-hand with proactive measures to increase understanding of LGBTQ people in societies.
As one of the interviewees said, “I just want to be acceptable.” Until LGBTQ people are accepted and included, conversion therapy will not be truly eradicated.