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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Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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