When I went to see the new film Boy Erased this week, half the audience was in tears. The movie depicts the devastating practice of gay conversion therapy, in which therapists or religious professionals try to “cure” young people of their homosexuality. At the end of the movie appears the statistic that 700,000 LGBT Americans have been exposed to conversion therapy — an estimate that includes both conversion therapy for gender identity and sexual orientation.
Psychiatry has a dark history when it comes to supporting LGBT people — or rather, not supporting them. Homosexuality was described as a mental illness for decades until it was dropped from the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. Since then, the field has evolved in its stance toward homosexuality. Conversion therapy for sexual orientation is now considered unethical by both The American Psychiatric Association and The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
What most people don’t realize, is that whether or not sexual orientation conversion therapy for adolescents is harmful was never properly studied. Most argue it doesn’t need to be. Based on expert consensus, literature from the harms of conversion therapy on adults, and inference, nearly every major medical organization labeled sexual orientation conversion therapy unethical.
A new study published this month in the Journal of Homosexuality finally provides some concrete evidence, however, that sexual orientation conversion therapy during adolescence is associated with poor mental health outcomes.
The study recruited 245 LGBT people between the ages of 21 and 25. Participants were asked two questions about sexual orientation conversion therapy:
- Between ages 13 and 19, how often did any of your parents/caregivers try to change your sexual orientation (i.e., to make you straight)?
- Between ages 13 and 19, how often did any of your parents/caregivers take you to a therapist or religious leader to cure, treat, or change your sexual orientation?
They also had participants complete a number of mental health measures. Those whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation had three-fold higher odds of having ever attempted suicide (aOR 3.08, 95 percent CI 1.39-6.83). Those whose parents enlisted the help of a professional (therapist or religious leader) to change their sexual orientation had a five-fold higher odds of having ever attempted suicide (aOR 5.07, 95 percent CI 2.38-10.79).
Overall, the field of psychiatry continues to condemn efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation. We now have additional data to show that such efforts are dangerous. As I’ve written before, several states have begun to outlaw the practice. I hope this new data will help propel lawmakers in other states to do the same.
1. The study has some limitations, which are further described in the manuscript. Notably, the authors recruited only people to identified as LGBT at the time of the study. The study would not have included people who identified as LGB during adolescence but not that the time of the study. Regardless, however, the study shows that there is a sizable number of people exposed to sexual orientation conversion therapy who then suffer poor mental health outcomes and that these mental health outcomes are worse than LGB young adults who are not exposed to conversion efforts.
Ryan, C., Toomey, R. B., Diaz, R. M., & Russell, S. T. (2018). Parent-Initiated Sexual Orientation Change Efforts With LGBT Adolescents: Implications for Young Adult Mental Health and Adjustment. Journal of homosexuality, 1-15.