The "Gay Cure" movement is in its death throes – but there's still more to do

Patrick Strudwick cheers the death of Exodus International.

It is tempting to laugh at attempts to “cure” gay people – the more outlandish techniques include lingering hugs with “ex-gay” therapists, massages with members of the same sex, spending hours in rugby scrums (I’m not kidding), and standing naked in front of the mirror touching yourself and affirming your heterosexuality. And, today, it is tempting to do a little dance at the latest news and assume the madness is all over.

The Coca-Cola of gay “cure” organisations, Exodus International, which has been inflicting so-called conversion therapy (or reparative therapy) for nearly 40 years, in 260 ministries around the world, has not only apologised for the “pain and hurt” it has caused, but has shut down.

“For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical," admitted Alan Chambers, president of the organisation. “I am profoundly sorry.”

The announcement caused such a frenzy of interest that, in apt symbolism, Exodus’s website, just like its therapeutic techniques, didn’t work. They can’t even cure their server.

Slow death

There is never a single moment when an ideology dies, but this is the fall of the Berlin Wall for the conversion therapy industry. Evidence has pick-axed the movement into pitiful rubble. This is 1989. And just as then, a succession of incidents over the preceding year created an unstoppable slide.

In April 2012, John Paulk, one of the leaders of the US conversion therapy racket, announced: “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm.”

The following month, Dr Robert Spitzer, a prominent American psychiatrist whose 2001 study into reparative therapy was used as evidence by the entire industry to support its efficacy, denounced his own findings.

“I believe I owe the gay community an apology,” he wrote. “I also apologise to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works.”

Spitzer was to conversion therapists what Dr Andrew Wakefield was to MMR-dodgers. And so, two months later, came the next acid attack: Alan Chambers (him again) admitted that conversion therapy didn’t work in “99.9%” of cases. The ensuing schisms between erstwhile mutually supportive organisations were loud and bloody, culminating in Joseph Nicolosi, founder of NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) – the Pepsi of the gay cure industry – to concede:

“I have never said I could cure someone completely from homosexuality… homosexual attractions will persist to someone degree throughout a person’s lifetime.”

California banned conversion therapy for minors in September and then, as if to illustrate how twisted and hypocritical the industry is, conversion therapist Ryan J Muelshauser was charged with sexually assaulting men he had been helping to “break away from gay life”. His methods allegedly included cupping their genitals and asking that they masturbate in front of him.

In Britain, nails were flying into the gay cure coffin at a similar rate. When, in April, I revealed that a conversion therapy organisation, Core Issues, had taken out adverts to appear on the side of buses reading, “Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!” Boris Johnson banned them, sparking widespread coverage. (Even a broken clock is right twice a day).

Five months later, after a two-and-a-half year fight, my case against Lesley Pilkington, a therapist who had attempted to make me straight while I was undercover investigating conversion therapy, finally concluded. She became the first therapist in history to be struck off for trying to treat a client’s homosexuality. Pilkington’s professional body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), described her as “reckless”, “disrespectful”, “dogmatic” and “unprofessional”. Not least because she suggested I had been sexually abused by a member of my family, and that’s why I turned out gay. It didn’t help her case that she had prayed to God during the sessions to bring these bogus abuse memories to the surface.

Every mental health body came out attacking conversion therapy. The BMA passed a motion condemning it. The BACP released a position statement against it for the first time.

That Pilkington was also attached to an NHS GP and, she said, had been getting clients for her work through the practice, caused a particular uproar, leading to the most recent nail.

This week, 25 MPs signed an Early Day Motion declaring, “attempts to cure or change a person’s sexual orientation is both ineffective and potentially extremely harmful,” so that “NHS medical professionals cannot inflict this cruel treatment on their patients”.

But, alas, the motion has no teeth, as the Coalition shelved Labour’s plans to regulate psychotherapy. Currently anyone can say they’re a therapist with not a jot of training or experience. And trying to ban a practice by those ungoverned by state or law is like trying to ban murder on Mars.

Not over

And so, the end of Exodus might spell conversion therapy’s demise but, though tempting, I can’t quite cheer yet – just as I stopped laughing about gay cures the moment I saw them in practise. You don’t need to read the studies by psychologists such as Shidlo and Shroeder (2002) to know the damage done by telling gay people they are sick, broken, perverted and pathological, or the long-term harm caused by brainwashing the vulnerable into believing that one of their most profound instincts is mutable. You simply have to see the self-harm marks and hear about the suicide attempts.

As for cheering: in the West conversion therapy may be gasping for breath, but in parts of Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia it is flourishing. This does not just mean LGBT people leading lives of unerring misery. It means gay people die.

In 2009, evangelical gay cure advocate Scott Lively went to Uganda and was granted a four-hour reception at its parliament, where he delivered a thundering speech about the dangers of homosexuality. It led directly to the so-called “Kill the Gays” death penalty bill currently still on the table.

Exodus International might be profoundly sorry for the harm it’s done but the ripples are now way beyond its reach. Only we, with evidence, with protest, with political intervention, can attempt to stop them.

Exodus' announcement on their website. Photograph: Getty Images
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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