The New Phrenology: The U.S., ‘Conversion Therapy,’ and the Radical Right

LGBTQ, conversion, anti-gay, homosexuality

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to eradicate the “abhorrent” practice of “reparative therapy,” an array of techniques pushed by radical anti-LGBT groups as purported “cures” for homosexuality. Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt called the discredited practice — also known as “conversion” therapy — “abuse of the worse kind” that “must be stamped out.”

In the United States, not so much,

It’s true that 13 U.S. states, along with a hefty number of municipalities, have banned the practice for minors. It’s also true that virtually every medical and mental health professional association in America has denounced the practice as useless at best and extremely harmful, not to say barbaric, at worst.

And it’s true that a seminal 2015 civil case in New Jersey, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center against a group initially called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, resulted in a withering ruling by the judge that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but — like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it — instead is outdated and refuted.” JONAH was convicted of consumer fraud and ordered to permanently close. (The SPLC alleged earlier this year that it had reopened under a different name, the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, and asked the court to shut it down.)

But the practice is far from eradicated.

In 2016, the year Donald Trump won the presidency, the Republicans’ national platform declared support for the “right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” a line reportedly added at the request of Tony Perkins, head of the viscerally anti-LGBT Family Research Council. Vice President Mike Pence once ran for Congress on a platform declaring that government money “should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Most remarkably, an estimated 20,000 LGBT youth aged 13 to 17 will be subjected to conversion therapy administered by a licensed health care professional by the time they are 18, according to a study earlier this year from the Williams Institute, a scholarly organization that is part of the UCLA School of Law. Another 57,000 will endure similar “therapy” from religious or spiritual advisers.

How bad is conversion therapy? Let’s review the record.

While many societies, such as the ancient Greeks and some American Indian tribes, accepted homosexuality as normal, many others made same-sex intercourse punishable by death, castration, and torture with devices like the Inquisition’s “anal pear,” designed to tear apart a man’s insides. Anal intercourse was outlawed in England in 1533, and Virginia passed a law against sodomy in 1610.

Conversion therapy developed from the 19thcentury’s turn toward science, which sparked the first real interest in “curing” homosexuality. Science, it was felt, could solve the “problem” of homosexuality like any other disease.

The results were not enlightening. A German baron claimed to cure gay people through hypnosis. An American neurologist proposed riding bicycles. A physician treating lesbians suggested using “the surgical ‘liberation’ of adherent clitorises” and injecting strychnine. A Viennese endocrinologist said he cured a gay man by transplanting a testicle from a heterosexual. Swiss authorities reported success by way of castration. In 1938, an American neurologist developed the “icepick” lobotomy, poking a sharp tool through patients’ eye sockets to sever the pre-frontal cortex from the frontal lobes of the brain. He carried out more than 1,000 lobotomies on gay patients, killing up to 100 men in the process.

In the 1960s, a British psychologist injected gay patients with nausea-inducing drugs while surrounding them with containers of urine and playing audio recordings of gay men having sex. In the 1970s, an American Mormon therapist administered electric shock therapy to men as they viewed homoerotic images. And into the 1990s, other patients were forced to sniff ammonia while watching gay porn, put in solitary confinement, given psychotropic drugs, and more.

But even when most of that ended, the barbarism continued. That came out in the JONAH trial, where witnesses recounted a litany of horrors — all of which JONAH’s defenders described as science-based psychotherapeutic method.

Patients were taken to a camp deep in the woods where they stood naked in a circle of men in order to develop “healthy attitudes” toward other men. Some were told to disrobe in front a mirror, in a room alone with a “therapist,” and touch their penises and buttocks. Others were asked to describe their favorite parts of the male body. One was handed a tennis racket and told to beat a pillow representing his mother with it, yelling “mom” throughout. Another was told to reenact the trauma of his childhood sexual abuse by a male cousin. There were “healthy touch” sessions where they were told to cuddle other men for long periods of time.

Studies and testimony show that these kinds of “treatments” are abusive and significantly raise the rates of suicide and self-harm. They reinforce pejorative and false stereotypes in boys and men who are exceedingly vulnerable at the time.

The fact is that conversion therapy is akin to phrenology, the “science” beloved by the Nazis that claimed to be able to identify inferior human beings by taking measurements of their skulls. It has no basis in science, is utterly barbaric in its application, and ends by damaging people who suffer no malady at all.

The United Kingdom seems poised to end once and for all a part of its ugly history of anti-“buggery” laws and horrendous treatment of its LGBT citizens. In the age of Donald Trump, a man who consigns immigrant children to cages, it seems too much to hope that the United States will finally do the same.

Mr Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a freelance journalist who has studied studied anti-LGBT groups and ideology for 20 years while an official of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2016, he wrote a 48-page booklet, Quacks: ‘Conversion Therapists,’ the Anti-LGBT Right, and the Demonization of Homosexuality, based largely on the 2015 JONAH trial. See his profile here.

©Mark Potok. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).