Faculty & Staff / Social Justice

Ending Conversion Therapy: The Fight for LGBTQ Youth

Wolff_880x340Joshua Wolff, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology program at Adler University in Chicago. He is a licensed clinical psychologist whose research focuses on the experiences of LGBTQ individuals in religious environments. He has worked with faith-based colleges to promote greater acceptance of LGBTQ identities and improve campus climate for sexual and gender minorities who attend faith-based schools. You can learn more about his ongoing work by visiting his research page, 1 Campus 1 Body Project

Jesus took a little child whom he placed among the disciples. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me;” – Mark 9:36-37, New International Version

I was raised in a conservative-leaning town in the Midwest, in an Evangelical Christian faith community and family. I learned from an early age that being gay was one of the worst sins someone could commit, even though that was never explicitly said, and that it was something I had to fix in order to be fully accepted by God, my family, and my faith-community.

So, like many who experience unwanted same-gender attraction, I sought the help of a mental health professional to change my sexual orientation. In my first session, I told him I desperately didn’t want to be gay and asked if he could really make me straight.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve worked with many other gay men who have begun to experience sexual desire for women as a result of treatment.”

He explained that he could change my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual through a process of psychotherapy called “conversion therapy” (also known as “reparative” or “reorientation” therapy).

Conversion therapy is rooted in the belief that same-gender attraction is caused by attachment disruptions in early childhood, and that healing these disruptions can lead to change in sexual orientation. It involves encouraging gender conformity and discouraging involvement with the LGBTQ community.

Despite the daunting process ahead, I was elated and excited that I would be able to live in a way that would make my parents proud and my faith-community accepting. I would be normal, able to live happily and openly.

A year and a half later, after meeting with my therapist every week and following all of his recommendations and admonishments, I told him I didn’t think it was working. I was still attracted to men, not at all to women.

“I don’t think this is helping me, and so I’m not going to continue therapy” I said.

My therapist acknowledged that it was my choice but expressed disappointment. He told me it hadn’t been long enough, that I hadn’t gone deep enough to really change.

I stuck with my decision to stop therapy and take time to reexamine what I believed about my faith and sexuality. Looking back, I’m proud of how I trusted and empowered myself; but at that time, I became deeply depressed. I felt ashamed, as if somehow it was my fault that my sexual orientation did not change.

Thankfully, I had the help of friends and other people in my life that showed me that there was nothing wrong with being gay, and the opposite was true; being gay can be a good thing. Despite the painful memories and experiences, I can say that I turned out OK, and am perhaps more fortunate in comparison to those who “succeeded” in their conversions.

So many other LGBTQ individuals fare far worse. The research is alarming, not only showing conversion therapy doesn’t work but that it actively harms the people who undergo it. They are more likely to attempt suicide after failed attempts at “conversion therapy” due to the shame of not being able to change sexual orientation or gender identity.

In general, LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their families, faith communities or both are more likely to become homeless, contract sexually transmitted infections, and develop mental health and substance abuse disorders.

In light of these concerns, we’ve got to do more to protect our nation’s vulnerable LGBTQ youth. One way we can do that is to stop the practice of conversion therapy with LGBTQ youth.

At the time of this writing, only four states (California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Illinois) and DC have banned the use of conversion therapy with minors. We need action on a federal level to protect LGBTQ children regardless of the state they live in.

I was honored to be part of a recent effort led by the federal government to stop the harmful practice of conversion therapy. Last summer, I was invited by the American Psychological Association (APA) to attend a consensus working group in Washington, DC.

We were tasked with helping the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) develop a comprehensive report that would bring together research, clinical experiences, and professional expertise from across psychology, psychiatry, endocrinology, and social work.  

The final report Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth is an important step in educating providers, families and the public at large about evidence-based, affirmative alternatives to conversion therapy that respect religion and cultural diversity, and provides a substantial resource list for states and other government entities who wish to ban the use of conversion therapy to protect children.

Beyond ending conversion therapy, mental health professionals also need to do more to educate families and religious communities about how to respond to their LGBTQ youth. This can happen through education about the harms of shaming and coercing young people to change their identities, as well as the many benefits of proving LGBTQ youth with safe, supportive social environments.

We also need to provide families and clergy with accurate information about the development of sexual orientation and gender identity, since children do not choose to have experiences of gender dysphoria or same-gender attractions.

Another means is to focus on shared values among families whose religious or cultural beliefs may not support LGBTQ identities. For example, Christians believe God loves His children unconditionally. Therefore, we can invite parents to think about ways they can model unconditional love for their child, regardless of the child’s sexual/gender identity.

All parents want what’s best for their children. This can be an important starting point for shared collaboration between mental health professionals and the communities we serve.