Let’s Talk About (Horribly Harmful) Conversion Therapy


person overwhelmed by talk of Conversion Therapy

By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

If you are in any way involved in the LGBTQ+ community, you’ve probably heard of conversion therapy. It doesn't work, it costs the US billions of dollars every year, only harms to those that undergo it.

So… why are we even discussing conversion therapy?

Everyone needs to know

The subject is a painful one for many, but we do feel it’s extremely important to talk about. We hope you take away at least one huge point: conversion therapy is unacceptable and harmful. This is a fact, and plenty of experts agree —it’s NOT something we encourage or promote.

And seriously, we cannot stress that enough. If there’s anything you take away from this blog, it’s that if you are considering conversion therapy for you or your loved ones, research shows you will do more harm than good.😓

We do want to put a quick content warning here that we’re going to be frank today. There are a lot of negative outcomes associated with conversion therapy, and we’re going to use research, science 🧑‍🔬, and facts to show that it’s something to be avoided.

So, what is Conversion Therapy?

Conversion therapy came about in the 1800s, from the misguided idea that homosexuality can, and should, be cured. This idea gained a lot of popularity following World War II, when a ‘model of an ideal family’ came about, rooted in being cisgender and heterosexual.

Conversion therapy involves any attempts to try and change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Nowadays, we know that sexual identity is fluid. Some might say it exists on a spectrum. Trying to forcibly change it causes incredible harm. It makes people feel as if who they are isn’t who they should be, and that only results in pain and rejection. 😠 According to many reports LGBTQ+ young people subjected to conversion therapy are more likely to:

  • Attempt suicide
  • Be depressed
  • Use illegal drugs
  • Be diagnosed with HIV and other STIs

Conversion therapy organizations and their advocates falsely claim that their “treatments” decrease the chances of contracting HIV. This is not true. Young people who enter these programs are MORE likely to end up contracting HIV!

How is that possible?

Conversion therapy uses HIV as a scare tactic to recruit people, linking conversion therapy to “becoming straight,” “strengthening the body” and making people less likely to get HIV. Obviously, we know that this is downright wrong!

Their argument twists information. It IS true that HIV is stigmatized amongst LGBTQ+ people. However, sexual orientation alone does NOT determine your body’s chances of getting sick!

Instead, conversion therapy actually causes people physical and emotional pain. It uses methods like repeated beatings and shouting slurs; sometimes even electrocution or off-label medicines. Parents may be instructed to reject or abandon their kids, leaving young LGBTQ+ people feeling isolated and hopeless.

So, it makes sense to us that the physical and mental toll of conversion therapy can also lead to depression and anxiety. From there, young LGBTQ+ people may try to manage their mental health by themselves.

Now, as we know, young people have sex! (Who would’ve thought? 😉) Since conversion therapy promotes misinformation, people who go through conversion therapy might not have the full picture on having safe sex. When you combine unsafe activities with a lack of information about HIV, the chances of being diagnosed with HIV only go up following conversion therapy.

What does this look like today?

Nearly every major medical group has come out against trying to change people’s sexuality or gender identities. 🙌 Lately, we’ve also seen legislation come into play, helping protect LGBTQ+ youth from conversion therapy. So far, 14 states have banned conversion therapy ✅, while Canada and at least six other nations have also outlawed conversion therapy.

Unfortunately, it persists way more than you might realize. Nearly 700,000 LGBTQ+ adults in the US have received conversion therapy, and 59,000 LGBTQ+ youths will experience some form of conversion therapy before they reach the age of 18.😞

Where do we go from here?

We firmly believe conversion therapy is harmful to LGBTQ+ people and worsens the HIV epidemic.

What we need to do is support those who have been subjected to conversion therapy. They deserve our love and support. 💗 AND, they deserve our call to action.

If you’re concerned about conversion therapy and are living with HIV, consider joining our Positive Peers app. Here you can connect which allows young adults with HIV, ages 13 to 34, and get the peer-to-peer support you need and deserve.

Through education and advocacy, we can move towards a future where conversion therapy is a thing of the past.