There’s a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange where the film’s protagonist Alex is ‘deprogrammed’ from violence through aversion therapy.
He’s shown distressing images of violent acts while his eyes are held open and electric shocks run through his body.
The scene is a disturbing one, as despite knowing how much Alex’s own savage behaviour has hurt others, you can’t help but feel sickened by the cruel therapy.
It may seem like something confined to dystopian films – or even to other countries – but conversion therapy is completely legal and happens here in the UK, as well as many parts of the world.
The 2018 National LGBT survey compiled by the government found that 2% of respondents had undergone conversion or reparative therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of being LGBT, and a further 5% had been offered it.
Meanwhile, Stonewall, as part of a YouGov survey, found that 10% of health and social care workers – who they surveyed to analyse how beliefs may impact patient care – said a colleague had vocalised belief in a ‘gay cure’. Essentially, this is not just a fringe issue.
Although making conversion therapy illegal has been tabled – and promised – by government years ago, the legislation has not yet passed, despite a petition calling for this currently carrying more than 230,000 signatures.
What is conversion therapy?
The United Nations defines so-called conversion therapy as practices that seek ‘to change non-heteronormative sexual orientations and non-cisnormative gender identities.’
They continue that it is ‘an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.
‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.
‘Depending on the context, the term is used for a multitude of practices and methods, some of which are clandestine and therefore poorly documented.’
Some of the ‘techniques’ they have seen in their extensive research on the topic include ‘corrective’ rape, threats, exorcisms, forced repentance, and isolation from family and friends.
The Government response to the petition promises to ‘to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy’, noting that ‘conversion therapy is a very complex issue’.
Carolyn Mercer – who was assigned male at birth – had aversion therapy at the age of 17, with the aim to ‘cure’ her from feelings of gender dysphoria.
Now 73, Carolyn says that this form of punitive treatment has affected her ability to feel positive emotions – despite the decades that have passed.
Her experience with aversion therapy began after she visited the doctor to talk about feeling like she was born in the wrong body. These feelings had started around age three, but the doctor brushed them off, telling the confused teenager to ‘stop worrying your mum’.
She said: ‘I needed someone to listen to me and recognise my identity not to try to change me by denial and punishment.’
From there, a meeting with the local vicar (who’d come to visit Carolyn’s parents while they were at work and only Carolyn was home) led to a chat where she spoke about her dysphoria, and then led to her being referred to a mental hospital.
‘I felt that I ought to be punished for feeling the way that I did,’ Carolyn said.
‘I didn’t know how to process it. Of course, in those days, there was no internet. There was no literature. There was no one I could talk to.’
When Carolyn did open up, she was sent to Whittingham Hospital near Preston, the town where she grew up.
She said: ‘I wanted to be cured. I didn’t want to be odd. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be nasty, dirty – which is how I saw it.
‘And so he referred me to the psychiatrist, who then recommended NHS treatment.’
This ‘therapy’ (Carolyn doesn’t like the word, but stresses that she did enter into it voluntarily) saw her strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room, with electrodes fastened to her arms.
She said: ‘I can still smell it. They soaked the electrodes in salt water, in brine, and attached them to my arm.
‘And then from time to time while showing pictures [of women’s clothes or typically feminine things] on the wall, they’d pull the switch and send a pain through my body.
‘The idea was to make me associate the pain with what I wanted to do, and therefore that would stop me wanting to do it.
‘Effectively what it did was not make me hate that aspect of me. It made me hate me because it reinforced that I was wrong; I was evil, and so I deserved to be punished. And that was inflicted as part of NHS treatment.’
Carolyn went on to marry a woman and had children, moving up the ranks in teaching to become the youngest headteacher in Lancashire.
Her life was filled with enviable and admirable moments, but the spectre of the therapy and knowing she was trans was always there.
It was barbaric… and it clearly didn’t work
Carolyn likens what she went through to previous corrective and punitive measures used on left-handed people throughout history, which are not only proven not to work, but are designed to change a natural facet of someone, pathologising their sexuality or gender expression.
A UN study published in June 2020 found that 98% of the 940 persons who reported having undergone some form of conversion therapy testified to having suffered damage as a result.
However, due to the underreporting of conversion therapy and the myriad of effects from physical to psychological (potentially making it harder for a specific harm to be pinpointed by governments), these practices are still not banned.
Although such practices are frowned upon in the therapy industry (and have been disavowed by the NHS), a petition by the public to enshrine this into law recently highlighted the fact that the overarching practise is still allowed in the UK.
Josh Bradlow, Policy Manager, Stonewall said: ‘Conversion therapy can come in many different forms from a variety of sources and is often hidden.
‘It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with difficult feelings. These so-called therapies are also sometimes based in psychotherapy or medical practices that try to “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’
Many of the physically violent acts that fall under the conversion therapy banner are already illegal – rape, for example – so in theory, a ban would encompass the psychological methods being used.
We have to continue to shine a light on the horrifying after-effects of these methods, too, so that they don’t fall by the wayside in legislation.
Despite Carolyn doing the ‘blokey’ things she felt she were supposed to do, the dysphoria didn’t go away until she transitioned in 2002 ( or, as Carolyn puts it, ‘align my gender expression with my gender identity, which most people call transition’).
We can’t change the past, but we can look at the main effect for Carolyn – over 40 years of self-hatred and low self-esteem – as a stark warning of what we need to do next.
She said: ‘I can smile about it now, because I force myself to.’
‘But it was barbaric, you wouldn’t subject somebody to that in a concentration camp.
‘It clearly didn’t work, but worked at making me hate myself for a lifetime.’
Carolyn believes her experience has made her devote her life to teaching in an effort to help others, in part because of her low opinion of herself caused by the therapy.
Mark Loewen tells a similar story, although the form of conversion therapy he experienced was different to Carolyn’s.
Mark grew up in Paraguay in a religious family. As a child – and without the internet until about the age of 13 – he didn’t know what the word gay even meant, but tells us: ‘Growing up, I knew that something was different.’
Small things such as playing with girls’ toys and the sense of shame that came with that led to Mark questioning his sexuality, and it was when he went through puberty that he realised he was sexually attracted to men.
The way that homosexuality was treated by the pastors at his church was to read the passages of the Bible about sex between men, and to tell Mark ‘just don’t do it, and you’ll be fine’.
Mark worked in a pet shop where one of the customers was known to be gay. His colleagues warned Mark to be careful around the customer.
He said: ‘That’s the message; kind of like we’re dangerous, and that I could be dangerous.’
That man went on to kill himself, leaving Mark believing that this is what ‘destiny’ would have in store too if he came out.
When Mark reached his early twenties he found chatrooms where he was able to identify other gay men through coded language and have secret meet-ups for sex. But because of the negative messages he internalised, these were filled with shame for him and he began to use the internet in order to look for a ‘solution’.
‘I’m not looking for “how can I be happy as a gay man?”,’ said Mark.
‘My searches are “how do we get rid of this?” And so I get involved with a group I find called Exodus International.’
His church told Mark that homosexuality was caused by a distant father and an overbearing mother, and that he was being ‘respectful’ by not feeling a desire to sleep with the girls he was dating. When the time was right, they said, he would meet that right woman.
While working at a Christian book store at around the age of 22, Mark would regularly have business trips to the US, so he was able to go to his first ‘ex-gay’ conference in California without telling his family or friends.
The three-day conference including worship and music, which Mark says made the crowd feel like they were in a ‘trance’.
‘Their speakers would talk a lot about this seeking wholeness where we were missing something emotionally and to seek it. And so a lot of it was about finding approval for yourself in as a person as a man.’
The seminars were framed in a way where gay wasn’t who you were, instead portraying it as a series of attractions and behaviours that could be managed.
At first, these sessions were cathartic for Mark, seeming to him the one place he could truly talk about his innermost secrets and still be ‘loved’.
Mark said: ‘It goes well for some time, and then you notice that you’re still attracted to guys, and all of that happens again and again until you kind of fall again and have sex with someone or whatever it is that you do. And then you feel like you’ve failed.’
Throughout later group therapy sessions it was drummed into Mark that his desire for emotional connection with another man was not love, but instead a form of codependence and selfishness – a way to gain a stronger sense of masculinity that he believed he lacked.
Group members and those he knew would pray for him and he would be given what we’d know as a form of exorcism to change him.
It was only when he went to a college in the US and began studying psychotherapy himself that he realised these techniques were ineffective and morally wrong.
He left the sessions and has gone on to have a daughter and get married to a man he loves dearly. But he says that unpicking the idea that he was codependent and that who he is is shameful has taken a lot of work.
Now 40 years old, Mark writes inclusive children’s books, counsels adults and children alike, and runs a website for parents to raise empowered young girls.
Like Carolyn, he has channeled his energy into helping others.
If we look at the idea of the carrot or the stick, Carolyn’s aversion therapy was the stick and Mark’s conversion therapy was the carrot.
Where Carolyn experienced the more extreme-seeming Clockwork Orange type treatment, Mark’s therapy veered into the territory of the 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, where ‘reparative therapy’ is used, with the idea being that same-sex attraction is a symptom of a psychological problem that can be fixed by talking through childhood issues.
The damage has been done
But both of these types of conversion therapy still go on throughout the world, and both have the end result of making people believe they are inherently wrong.
Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow said: ‘A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed.
‘By trying to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, these ‘therapies’ can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Major UK health organisations like the NHS, and the leading psychotherapy and counselling bodies have publicly condemned these practices.’
The ‘happy ending’ here is the fact that Carolyn transitioned and is a grandparent with a loving wife and children, and that Mark has found his calling and started a beautiful family.
But healing scars that run so deep are much harder than ensuring we don’t inflict them in the first place.
Carolyn likens the experience to stretching an elastic band to the point where it no longer has any give left.
‘I don’t feel positive emotions,’ she said.
‘And that’s what has been driven out of me by an understanding that I was wrong. I was evil.
‘[Without aversion therapy] I would have been freed from that. I would have been able to enjoy things more. It’s better now than it was, but the damage is done.’
As the stats above show, although these decades have passed in Carolyn and Mark’s stories, these therapies are still happening, and the damage is still being done to others.
Both the survivors of conversion therapy say that the solution is more understanding and empathy alongside a ban on these practices.
It’s all very well to ban conversion therapy, but without the proper understanding about the shame and hiding that comes with gender dysphoria or questions about our sexuality, we’re no closer to equality.
Mr Bradlow said: ‘Banning sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy would send a powerful message to young LGBT people to let them know that they are not ill.
‘But we also need to work on raising awareness of these dangerous practices, and ensure practitioners are trained to recognise it too.
‘And fundamentally, we need to tackle messages young LGBT people may get from other places, whether that be school, the media or at home, that there’s something wrong with who they are.
‘Until that happens, our work continues to ensure every lesbian, gay, bi and trans person can grow up happy, healthy and supported to be themselves.’