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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.