End Conversion Therapy for Minors

Author: Regina Paulose

Conversion therapy (also known as “reparative,” “re-orientation,” or “cure” therapy) is a type of psychotherapy which professionals or ex-gay ministries use to allegedly “cure” or “help” a person who is gay eliminate or suppress feelings towards the same sex.


What does this particular therapy entail? Victims and survivors who have been through sessions “speak of the medically unsound methods employed by these therapists and organizations, such as behavioral therapy, electrical shock therapy, chemical aversive therapy, drug and hormone therapy, surgery, and psychotherapy. Other accounts are similar and include homophobic counseling, religious propaganda, isolation, unnecessary medication (including hormone treatment), subliminal therapies designed to inculcate “feminine” or “masculine” behavior, and “covert desensitization” therapies that teach a young person to associate homosexual feelings with disgusting images.”[1] Some groups associated with this therapy also engage in kidnapping.[2] More victim and survivor stories from these camps can be found here.


Despite the heinous tools used to “cure” minors, this therapy is legal in many states in the USA. Although this post will focus on the USA, it should be noted that in countries like Russia, Israel, UK, India, Australia, and China, the therapy is utilized. Conversion therapy has been “rejected by virtually every major medical association.” In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.  Several mental health organizations, “representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals, have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus is not something that needs to or can be ‘cured.’” Abroad, other medical associations have stated the therapy is unethical. The Pan American Health Organization has asked world governments to ban the therapy and “supposed conversion therapies constitute a violation of the ethical principles of health care and violate human rights that are protected by international and regional agreements.” The United Nations Human Rights Office issued a report with recommendations on how to protect LGBT rights and among the recommendations was a call to “[e]nd abusive therapies and treatments to which LGBT people are often subjected — including so-called “conversion” therapy…”


Further, most medical professionals have concluded that the therapy “poses significant risks for gay adolescents. It can lead to depression, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.” Exodus International, which once pushed and supported reparative therapy, shut down its “ex-gay” ministry, and opened a new one, aimed at inclusion and community. On the other hand, ex-gay ministries and other medical professionals claim that there are problems with outlawing conversion therapies.


When conversion therapy (in any form) is used on minors, it is a form of torture. Children are sent to these institutions (and in some cases are not seen by licensed professionals) by their parents. There is growing support behind this proposition as new legislation seeks to ban the practice for payment in the USA.


In May 2015, the US House of Representatives introduced the Therapeutic Fraud and Prevention Act. The purpose of the bill is to prohibit “sexual orientation or gender identity conversion therapy from being provided in exchange for monetary compensation. Bars advertisements for such therapy that claim to: (1) change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, (2) eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender, or (3) be harmless or without risk.” In April 2016, this bill was introduced in the Senate. As of this article, no further action has been taken on the bill.


Source: @JodySieradzski

Shamefully, while the USA has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1992) and the Convention against Torture (1994). The issue of ending conversion therapy on minors has come up at different times over the last three years. In 2014, the UN Convention against Torture panel questioned the USA over the use of this therapy. Subsequently, the USA submitted in its Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review that federal efforts were being made to “support efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors.”


Under US Federal law, torture is defined as, “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”  The definition of torture under the UN Convention requires the 1) intentional infliction of emotional suffering 2) by an official who is directly or indirectly involved 3) for a specific purpose. Both definitions are limited to acts done by or at the behest of officials against a person in their custody/control. There are two important points to note here. The first, is that a licensed official, a therapist, a minister, or anyone acting in a capacity with a license issued by the state, is arguably a person who is “acting under the color of law” or an “official.” Second, “state inaction in the face of private violence can constitute torture.”


Further, the definition of torture continues to evolve and expand. Under the UN definition of torture, it is apparent that conversion therapy can constitute a form of torture. In 2001, UN Special Rapporteur Nigel Rodley stated in his 2001 report, “…it appears that members of sexual minorities are disproportionately subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment, because they fail to conform to socially constructed gender expectations.”[3] The Rapporteur continued, “[i]n a number of countries, members of sexual minorities are said to have been involuntarily confined to state medical institutions, where they were allegedly subjected to forced treatment on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including electric shock therapy and other “aversion therapy”, reportedly causing psychological and physical harm. The Special Rapporteur notes, in particular, that the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases-10 (ICD-10) in 1992.”[4]


Given the various extremes that have been presented by survivors and victims of conversion therapy, it is imperative that the US government ban the use of this treatment on minors. Further, the UN Convention against Torture should call for a worldwide ban on the use of this therapy since no medical body has been able to support the use of this treatment.


[1] Karolyn Ann Hicks, “’Reparative’ Therapy: Whether Parental Attempts to Change a Child’s Sexual Orientation Can Legally Constitute Child Abuse” American University Law Review, 1999, pg 515, available at: http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1288&context=aulr

[2] Ibid at 516

[3] Sir Nigel Rodley, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, General Assembly resolution 55/89. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. July 3, 2001, para 19, https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N01/445/79/PDF/N0144579.pdf?OpenElement

[4] Ibid para 24