Nor is it “conversion” for that matter…
Therapy, n. (Theh-ru-pee)
Meaning: treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder.
As an openly gay man, it’s impossible to consider my sexuality as a disorder. I’m clearly not confused since I made my mind up years ago. And being gay can’t be an illness if it doesn’t adversely affect me — or others, providing the sex is consensual and safe. So how does one intend to “relieve or heal” this supposed disorder if it’s not a disorder in the first place?
To answer this, I sat down with Anthony Venn-Brown, a survivor of this supposed treatment. He has battled through years of self-doubt and shame, finally coming out on the other side as an openly gay Christian man. In 2004, Anthony published a memoir titled A Life of Unlearning, which details his struggles with homosexuality, the church, and his Christian faith.
This includes undertaking gay conversion therapy. And interestingly, it wasn’t always known as “gay conversion therapy.”
“It used to be known as ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy,” Anthony says. “The people who used the term ‘reparative’ therapy were taking a therapeutic approach, even though it was pseudoscience.
“So, no survivor would use the term “conversion therapy”, and practitioners of what’s become known as conversion therapy also would not use the term.
“Interesting how it’s become the popular term…”
In fact, Anthony created a timeline of gay ‘reparative’ treatment and found that the terminology and practices around ex-gay therapy have altered over the years — possibly to fit in with societal changes around homosexuality and gender.
It also must be said that conversion therapy affects the entire LGBTQI community — “anything that is outside of their heteronormative concept is sin, unnatural, or the cause of wrongful development.”
Following Anthony’s gay conversion therapy timeline, he states: “While the practices, terminology, treatments and even the goals may have changed over time, the false belief about the cause of homosexuality has pretty well stayed the same.”
“It’s heading towards being a century old.”
To be blunt, gay conversion therapy is not “therapy.” And it’s not just Anthony saying that; a majority of the western world’s leading psychological associations say it as well.
And, while we’re at it, “conversion” is wrong, too.
Explaining Those Success Stories
If you dive deep enough into the world of so-called gay conversion therapy, you will eventually come across “success stories.” These are people who claim to be cured of their homosexuality and are now living a normal heterosexual life.
For a time, Anthony Venn-Brown also considered himself a success story.
But it’s not really a success. In fact, it’s best described as “situational heterosexuality” — a term coined by Anthony himself. This means that the situation affords the action of being heterosexual. Or as Anthony explains:
“For people like myself, who married heterosexually, it was a situation that created the heterosexual experience — but it doesn’t change your orientation.
“You just function heterosexually.”
“Situational heterosexuality” arises from the term “situational homosexuality,” which explains the homosexual tendencies in sex-segregated spaces like prisons, the military and boarding schools. In fact, Louis Theroux uncovered this (and popularised the term) in his past prison documentaries as well as his own experiences through an all-boys boarding school.
“There’s something about a lot of males, be they boys or men, in a confined space,” Theroux said on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
“Something about the improvised physical fabric, which is all higgledy-piggledy. And then — I hesitate to say this — a certain level of situational homosexuality.
“Which I think, I hope I’m not scandalising anyone, is relatively common, definitely in prison and to an extent in all-male boarding schools.”
But, just because they engage in homosexual sex, this doesn’t mean they are gay. Or, as Anthony puts it on his blog:
“Once they come out of that situation, they have not become homosexual, they revert to their natural orientation; sex and relationships with the opposite sex.
“It’s only the situation that created the behaviour; the orientation wasn’t changed.”
And it’s the same when we look at the flip side; what Anthony calls situational heterosexuality:
“For many men — like myself — we’d say we’re now heterosexual,” Anthony says. “But we would never ever be tempted to other women; it was only our wives who we’d have sex with.
“But there were lots of temptations to have sex with other guys.”
As the truism goes: you cannot choose who you’re attracted to. And, as Anthony explains, forcing yourself to change is a real struggle.
Gay Conversion Therapy is Torture
Whether you call it gay conversion therapy, ex-gay therapy or reparative therapy, the fact of the matter is it’s not actually “therapy.” In fact, one United Nations expert said it “can amount to torture.”
But when Anthony describes it, you can’t help but think it is torturous already:
“So, for people within the religious context — and this is where it’s happening today — you already have a sense of shame around your sexual orientation. And when you get to the point where you think, I have to do something about this, and you tell your pastor or your church leader, or you seek out one of these organisations, that would multiply the intensity of that shame ten times over.
“So it gets to the point of lots of self-loathing and self-hatred — because you can’t change who you are. So even the thought of, oh that guy’s attractive; well suddenly that thought becomes something evil. Something you’ve gotta resist.
“Attached to this, of course, within the Christian context, is your eternal destiny depends upon either your acceptance or rejection of your sexual orientation. So that’s very heavily loaded: heaven or hell depends on what you do with this.
“And all these things going on — the internal conflict — affects people mentally, psychologically, depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, attempts of suicide. That is the common thread with it.
“So, is it good? Does it help people? It totally fucks them up.
“And they can live with that harm for many many years.”
The sad reality is: gay conversion therapy is still happening across the world today. And much of it isn’t happening in a formal organisation; many times it’s between a pastor and the ‘afflicted’ person.
“So, when a sixteen-year-old kid goes to his youth pastor and says ‘look, I might be gay’, the youth pastor will most likely say: ‘oh, well that’s not what God wants. Let’s pray with you and help you through this and overcome.’
“Even though there’s no formal organisation for it, it’s still there.”
To be blunt, gay conversion therapy isn’t therapy. It’s more akin to torture, perpetrated by those who abide by heteronormative values. It doesn’t offer a cure, only false hope, along with unnecessary trauma. And the only way to remedy this problem is through education.
“Read outside your cultural fence and your Christian fence,” Anthony says. “And be open to the possibility that being gay is perfect and that God loves you just the way you are.”
Originally published in An Injustice Magazine on Medium