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What Is Conversion Therapy?

In the world of mental health and psychiatry, there can be many wonderful therapies that someone can undergo in order to improve their lives. Behavioral therapies can help promote positive thinking patterns and eliminate negative behaviors. Play therapy can help children open up to new ways of communication to better understand themselves and their world. Exposure therapy can help someone conquer their fears. 

Nearly all forms of therapy are positive and helps people get a better sense of well-being they mostly focus on improving the quality of life for the client or patient involved. Unfortunately, there also exists some dangerous therapies that can end up causing more harm than good. One such “therapy” is known as conversion therapy.

What Is the Goal of Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy refers to a variety of dangerous and discredited practices that are aimed at changing a individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, specifically LGBT people. If someone’s sexual orientiation is lesbian, gay or bisexual than the goal of conversion therapy would be to convert them to being “straight” or heterosexual. 

The same is true for those that identify as transgender or nonbinary, as conversion therapy will push to change them to be cisgender instead. One of the goals of conversion therapy will be to change a person’s gender expressions into those more suited to the stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity based on their assigned gender. 

Another goal is to reduce or eliminate the sexual or romantic attractions or feelings that someone has towards a person of their same gender. As the practice becomes increasingly more scrutinized and condemned, there have been many attempts to change the terminology to avoid detection. Here are a few examples of conversion therapy by other names:

  • Gender critical therapy
  • Reparative therapy
  • Ex-gay ministry
  • Sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)
  • Gender identity change efforts
  • Gay conversion therapy
  • Sexual attraction fluidity exploration in therapy (SAFE-T)
  • Eliminating, reducing, or decreasing frequency of intensity of unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA)
  • Sexual reorientation efforts
  • Promoting healthy sexuality
  • Addressing sexual addictions and disorders
  • Sexuality counseling
  • Encouraging relational and sexual wholeness
  • Healing sexual brokenness

How Does Conversion Therapy Work? 

Some conversion therapists still continue to use harmful practices or physical methods, such as painful aversive conditioning, but the most common technique is “talk therapy.” Often the mental health professional will claim that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is the result of abuse and childhood trauma, or a result of a person’s environment and upbringing. They also intentionally conflate their attempts to alter sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression with treatments of actual conditions such as sexual addiction. 

The reason for labeling these attempts as treatments for “sexual addiction” instead of conversion therapy is because every year there are more laws and regulations being created to help protect members of the LGBTQ community from these conversion therapy practices. These laws are a result of attitudes towards homosexuals and transgenders having changed dramatically over the years in both the public eye and in the psychological community as well. 

Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973 and was not seen as a human right, and “gender identity disorder” was removed from psychological manuals in 2013. These are the states and territories that currently have laws to protect their citizens from conversion therapy or have a ban on conversion therapy :

  • California (September 30, 2012)
  • Colorado (May 31, 2019)
  • Connecticut (May 10, 2017)
  • Delaware (July 23, 2018)
  • Hawaii (May 25, 2018)
  • Illinois (August 20, 2015) 
  • Maine (May 29, 2019)
  • Maryland (May 15, 2018)
  • Massachusetts (April 8, 2019)
  • Nevada (May 17, 2017)
  • New Hampshire (June 8, 2018)
  • New Jersey (August 19, 2013)
  • New Mexico (April 7, 2017)
  • New York (January 25, 2019)
  • Oregon (May 18, 2015)
  • Rhode Island (July 19, 2017)
  • Utah (January 21, 2020)
  • Virginia (March 2, 2020)
  • Vermont (May 25, 2016)
  • Washington (March 28, 2018)
  • The District of Columbia (December 22, 2014)
  • Puerto Rico (March 27, 2019)

There are other states that currently have cities and counties that will offer protection but there are still no statewide laws or mandates enacted yet.

Is Conversion Therapy Harmful? 

The answer to this question has been overwhelmingly proven to be yes. Not only is conversion therapy generally ineffective and a waste of both time and money, but it’s also strongly associated with negative mental outcomes and higher risks of suicide. 

A study by the San Francisco State University found that when compared to others that were not rejected or mildly rejected by their caregivers for being homosexual or transgender, young people that were highly rejected were:

  • 8.4 times more likely to report they attempted suicide
  • 5.9 times more likely to report having high levels of depression
  • 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs
  • 3.4 times more likely to be a higher risk for HIV and other STDs

A 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 10 percent of LGBTQ youth reported undergoing conversion therapy at some point in their lives, with 78 percent reporting that it occurred when they were under the age of 18. When compared to LGBTQ members who did not undergo conversion therapy, those that did reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the previous year. 

Along with an increase in suicide, some other harmful side effects of conversion therapy can include:

  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • High-risk sexual behavior
  • Hopelessness
  • Increased self-hatred
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Loss of faith
  • Shame 
  • Social withdrawal
  • Suicidal thought and tendencies

Conversion Therapy as a Form of Rejection 

Conversion therapy is most often performed on adolescents and is the result of their parents or guardians rejecting their sexuality or gender identity. The shame and stigma that so many LGBTQ people face can already be overwhelming without adding on these pressures. These are some examples taken from the previously mentioned study:

  • Forty-eight percent reported engaging in self-harm in the previous 12 months, including 60 percent of transgender or nonbinary.
  • Twenty-nine percent have experienced homelessness, been kicked out or run away from home. 
  • One in three reported being physically threatened or harmed in their lives due to their LGBTQ identity. 
  • Sixty-one percent of transgender and nonbinary reported being prevented or discouraged from using a bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Parents or guardians that attempt to change their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity will instill feelings of family rejection and risk seriously fracturing their relationship with their child.

 Another study found these statistics related to LGBTQ being rejected by their family:

  • The rate of attempted suicide by LGBTQ people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation was over double (48 percent) the rate of LGBTQ that reported no such conversion experiences. 
  • Suicide attempts nearly tripled for LGBTQ people that reported in home-based and out of home efforts to change their sexual orientation (63 percent)
  • High levels of depression were more than doubled (33 percent) for LGBTQ people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation when compared to those with no conversion experiences (16 percent) and more than tripled (52 percent) for those reporting in home based and out of home efforts to change their sexual orientations.
  • Attempts at changing sexual orientation during adolescence by parents and caregivers or externally by therapists or social workers and religious leaders were associated with lower socioeconomic status, less educational attainment, and lower weekly incomes. 

Despite these clear cut examples of the negative effects of conversion therapy, there will be an estimated 80,000 more LGBTQ youth that will be subjected to these practices in the coming years as conversion therapy is still legal in 30 states. 

There is a growing number of national organizations composed of licensed medical and mental health care professionals, educator and advocates that have spoken out aggressively against the practice of conversion therapy and continue the fight to outlaw the practice altogether. This list includes:

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • American Academy of Pediatric
  • American Academy of Physician Assistants 
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
  • American Association of School Administrators 
  • American College of Physicians
  • American Counseling Association
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • American Medical Association
  • American Medical Women’s Association
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • American Psychoanalytic Association
  • American Psychological Association
  • American School Counselor Association
  • Child Welfare League of America
  • Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health 
  • Mental Health America
  • National Association of School Nurses
  • National Associations of School Psychologist
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals
  • National Education Association
  • School Social Work Association of America
  • Voice for Adoption

The Takeaway 

Conversion therapy is an often barbaric attempt to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person and is most commonly used on adolescents. The statistics have overwhelmingly proved that not only is this practice largely ineffective, but it’s actually very harmful and often cruel.

The practice of conversion therapy will one day be outlawed, and that time can not be soon enough. There are hundreds of thousands of people that have had to endure this cruel treatment and tens of thousands more will experience soon. 

As morally reprehensible as the idea of changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is, the practice of conversion therapy is still legal in states. 

There are plenty of options for quality psychiatric and mental health care that can be found for anyone suffering the negative consequences of this archaic practice or for anyone that may need some help. The goal of therapy should always be to put the care of the patient at the forefront and focus on improving their lives. It should never be about attempting to change sexual orientation or gender identities


  1. About Conversion Therapy (thetrevorproject.org) 
  2. National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020 (thetrevorproject.org)
  3. The Lies and Dangers of Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity – (hrc.org)
  4. Conversion Therapy (glaad.org)
  5. First Study Shows Pivotal Role of Parents in Conversion Efforts to Change LGBT Adolescents’ Sexual Orientation | Family Acceptance Project ® (familyproject.sfsu.edu)

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