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
Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue