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Conversion Therapy in Orange County

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Conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, is currently illegal in 20 states and in the District of Columbia (D.C.). 

According to the Movement Advancement Project, “[c]onversion ‘therapy’ laws prohibit licensed mental health practitioners from subjecting LGBTQ minors to harmful conversion ‘therapy’ practices that attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

These laws, however, do not prohibit similar practices from occurring within religious settings,  which are able to continue the practice primarily under the First Amendment’s protection of the free exchange of ideas and speech. 

According to interviews with anonymous sources, some churches try to alter a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression through prayer, worship and a means of enforcing the laws of biblical text through official legislation. Others attempt to enact change  through physically abusive techniques within a religious setting. 

According to a study conducted by UCLA, 698,000 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. alone have recieved conversion therapy. Of that group, 350,000 were adolescents upon receipt. 

“I think conversion therapy is a way that individuals have weaponized religion and spirituality to discrimitate, isolate and control individuals who identify as LGBTQ or those who are questioning,” LGBTQ Center OC Mental Health Director Kel Williams said in an interview with the New University. “The long term effects of conversion therapy can be a loss of religious family and community for individuals … It can cause chronic guilt and shame, depression and grief, and most importantly, internalized homophobia and transphobia.”  

Orange County is one of the most heavily LGBTQ populated areas in the U.S. However, Orange County’s LGBTQ communities are not exempt from hate crimes nor outspoken disapproval from religious communities.   

“I know that it is happening today despite legislation,” Williams said. “I know that there are some loopholes that others are using to get through this … calling it ‘reparitive therapy’ or placing it in a church and calling it an ‘ex-gay ministry.’” 

When approached, a number of churches, specifically non-denominational Christian churches, either declined to speak on the matter, or they referred to Galatians 5 and Romans 1, which have been quoted in defense of the condemnation of homosexuality and its likeness. 

“This is what happens with religious institutions who cause religious trauma … It’s this idea that they get to gatekeep who gets to participate in their religion — they are gaslighting their access to a higher power that the LGBTQ community does not have,” Williams said. “They expect and encourage religious perfectionism, which misleads individuals into thinking its something they can attain through conversion therapy … But it’s not possible to attain religious perfectionism.” 

However, not all who identify with a religious community support the separation of the LGBTQ and religious communities. 

“I believe that the Bible says to love people. Jesus died on the cross for us because he loves people and he wants to bring everybody to heaven with him,” a Christian who outwardly supports the LGBTQ community while still affiliating with her church said. “I think that conversion therapy is just a way for churches to try to demean and belittle people who they think are sinning …  I think conversion therapy is something people do to get rid of their own personal guilt for their own sins, and I think a lot of the leaders of conversion therapy think that they’re doing something right, but they’re brainwashing people rather than truly changing them.”

The debate between the LGBTQ community and the church has been ongoing for decades. In response, thousands of studies have been conducted on the normalcy of homosexuality. The results and ethicality of those studies have often received mixed reviews. 

Dr. Robert L. Spitzer’s 2003 investigation is an example of a controversial study conducted on members of the LGBTQ community. In the study, Spitzer recruited 200 men and women from conversion therapy centers for his study. He then interviewed each individual on their sexual urges and tendencies before and after treatment. 

According to Spitzer’s conclusion, “[t]he majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year.” 

Spitzer’s study was used to justify conversion therapy as a means to “cure” homosexuality. However, the experiment was found to be inherently flawed. 

The New York Times determined the study to have violated the terms of a sound investigation based on the fact that its subjects included ex-gay advocates, and its tests did not include a specific form of therapy. While some participants were treated by professional therapists, others engaged solely with pastors or participated in an independent Bible study. 

Spitzer acknowledged the flaws of his study 11 years later

“I believe, I owe the gay community an apology,” Spitzer stated.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “No credible evidence exists that any mental health intervention can reliably and safely change sexual orientation; nor, from a mental health perspective does sexual orientation need to be changed.” 

Help for victims of conversion therapy can be provided through hotlines, such as the Trevor Project Hotline which is supported by free, confidential counselors. They can be reached at (866) 488-7386.

Erin Boshers is a City News Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at eboshers@uci.edu.