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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Millennials are caught between limited opportunities and declining sperm counts

The lifestyles led by those picturing a future family could make it much harder to have one.

Amid all of the balanced and scientific responses to the news that male sperm counts have decreased by 60 per cent in the last 40 years, one outlet could be relied upon to give a level-headed analysis.

“Humans could become EXTINCT as sperm counts plummet 60 per cent in 40 years – and modern living is to blame,” shouted the Sun’s bold typeface and capitalisation. While extinction is a long way off – at least from this particular threat – there are serious concerns about birth rates in the year to come, with 15 per cent of the report’s 7,500-strong sample size seeing their fertility impaired.

This is not a position men are used to being in. For once, it is our ability to procreate that is being attacked. Scientists behind the study hope that calling into question men’s reproductive privilege will serve as a “wake-up call” for health authorities and fellow scientists to investigate the causes, and for men to take their lifestyles more seriously.

And yet, at this point, many men would be hard-pressed to care. In blaming “modern living”, the Sun predictably jumps the gun – the study was only designed to confirm or disprove a decrease. Research into causation will now follow, but potential factors hypothesised by the study include “endocrine disrupting chemicals, pesticides, heat and lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, smoking and body mass index”. A poor diet, stress, smoking and a high BMI? It all sounds scarily familiar.

That 21st century life creates stressful conditions in which our health is adversely affected is not exactly breaking news. Mental health diagnoses have increased – with many NHS trusts seeing a rise of 30 per cent in referrals, according to recent figures from BBC Radio 5 Live – and obesity is still a huge concern.

It's no surprise that reproductive health will be compromised, too. But there is a cruel irony in that the very same conditions which erode our reproductive health are precisely those which mean we might not care.

For the majority of millennials, the atmosphere preferred for raising a family – owning a house, financial security, and long-term job prospects – has never seemed so distant. This is despite working longer hours, for more years. That cliché notion of “settling down” is far beyond the horizon, something unimaginable for many trying to claw their way on to the housing ladder, or into a steady and secure career.

By the time that millennial men reach the point in their lives where they have battled stress, a poor diet and caffeine dependency in order to become financially – or romantically – stable enough to want to build a family, sperm counts might be irreparably damaged. There are, after all, fears that the rate of decline is not only stable, but rising.

The findings of the study do indicate that sperm levels are still within the “normal” range, so we’re not at Children of Men levels yet. But if the threat of apocalypse doesn’t spur men into action, the thought of declining health definitely should.

Perhaps it is the complacency derived from better living conditions, higher birth rates and longer life expectancy that leaves us so cold when it comes to these findings – but continuing to take risks with our health will have longer-term side-effects.

It shouldn’t take a study to tell us that 21st century living is bad for our health. Scientists behind the research have a point: we must “wake up” and make more of an effort to keep ourselves in good health.

We must eat fewer processed meats, smoke fewer cigarettes, take more time away from our desks and, to quote “Fitter Happier”, Radiohead’s ode to modern misery, get “regular exercise at the gym, three days a week”. We might not be able to change millennial living, but we can certainly create our own space within it.

Who knows – our lives, those of our as-yet-unconceived children and, if the Sun is to be believed, the entire human race, might depend upon it.