Content Warning: Sensitive topics are discussed throughout this article, including suicide.
This summer, President Biden signed an executive order to prohibit federally-funded programs from offering conversion therapy, an ineffective and unethical practice to change an individual’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. While an important political statement, it’s likely not enough to end the practice altogether. Forward progress will only happen with legal and regulatory changes at both the national and local levels.
Originating in 1973, conversion therapy became an umbrella term to describe any psychological, physical or spiritual intervention aimed at converting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and other identities (LGBTQ+) to traditional heterosexual and cisgender norms. Practices range from talk therapy and prayer to physical violence and exorcisms.
In the decades since its inception, conversion therapy has impacted nearly 700,000 individuals in the United States (US), with 350,000 of them subjected as minors. While estimates range considerably, tens or even hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ youth are currently at risk of receiving conversion therapy by religious leaders or licensed professionals.
It is well-documented that conversion therapy is ineffective, but mounting evidence indicates there are also mental health and economic implications.
Among 28 published studies including almost 200,000 LGBTQ+ individuals, 12% underwent conversion therapy as minors and experienced higher rates of depression and substance use than peers who were not exposed.
Similarly, a 2022 survey by The Trevor Project reported that, out of the thousands of LGBTQ+ youth that were threatened with or subjected to conversion therapy, more than half attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 11% of youth with no intervention.
Additional negative effects were found in a study of members of the Mormon Church exposed to conversion therapy, including worsened self-esteem, anxiety, increased distance from God, and a sense of wasted time and money.
On the economic front, a new study estimated that conversion therapy costs nearly $100,000 per person over their lifetime. Alternatively, LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy would result in a $40,000 saving per person over their lifetime.
Given conversion therapy’s harms, many reputable health associations have formally denounced the practice. This even led Exodus International, the largest host of conversion programs worldwide, to disavow conversion therapy in a public apology prior to shutting down.
Despite the evidence, 51% of LGBTQ+ Americans live in states with no bans or only partial bans on conversion therapy. With the practice remaining fully legal in 21 states, President Biden’s executive order will not solve this public health issue alone.
A federal ban on conversion therapy through legislation would be the ideal solution but it would be difficult to achieve. Bills have been introduced in Congress four times since 2015, perpetually stalling in subcommittee. Bipartisan support is challenging due to religious influence and advocacy from parental freedom fighters.
However, recent polls indicate there is growing opposition to conversion therapy from conservative-led states, with 71% of Floridians and 80% of North Carolinians supporting bans against the practice. Internationally, over 370 religious leaders from 35 countries have called for a global ban.
To build momentum for state, and ultimately federal, legislation, it may be vital to strategize on the local level. When Ohio and Utah originally failed to pass statewide legislation, licensing regulations were developed to prevent health professionals from offering conversion therapy. To date, 80 local ordinances also ban the practice in select counties and cities nationwide, including several in Kansas, Kentucky, and Alaska, historically conservative-led states.
While the United Nations has equated conversion therapy with torture, only 14 countries have created a national ban on the practice. The United States is not among them, but evidence and ethics suggests it should be.
- The Trevor Project Hotline: 1-866-488-7386
- Conversion Therapy Survivors Support Group: ctsurvivors.org