Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Repairing the Damage of Reparative Therapy

“But I’m a Cheerleader” - the campy lesbian cult-classic of the 1990’s - tells the satirical story of Megan Bloomfield, a cheerleader who gets diagnosed with homosexuality by her friends and family and sent away to camp be cured of this embarrassing malady. The movie portrays the “pray the gay away” facility that Megan is sent to as a ridiculous collection of clearly closeted instructors forcing gay teens into absurd gender-norm role plays in an attempt to illustrate the absurdity of trying to cure someone of their sexuality.

Lesbian teens practice stereotypical feminine tasks in an attempt to rid
 themselves of their homosexual urges in “But I’m a Cheerleader”

Watching this movie as a 13 year old who was coming to terms with my own sexuality, I was exposed to the concept of conversion therapy (correctional therapy with the intention of changing an individual’s sexuality) for the first time. I was horrified that such a thing actually existed, but the satire and playful tone of “But I’m a Cheerleader” made me feel like this so-called “ex-gay” therapy was safely in the past; that the reality of anyone trying to “fix” someone’s gayness was as archaic as it was terrifying. And while it is true that extreme methods such as using electroshock therapy on gay teenagers in an attempt to straighten them out are not as prevalent today as they were in past decades, the unfortunate truth is that conversion therapy still very much exists all over the country.

Only a few months ago, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have made conversion therapy illegal for patients under 18 in the state of Illinois. In fact, only two U.S. states have laws banning conversion therapy for minors (California and New Jersey), meaning that in any other parts of the county this kind of damaging treatment is entirely legal. These therapies often use methods such as nausea-inducing drugs, spiritual intervention, and psychoanalytic therapy, all of which have been rejected by all creditable mental health professionals.

There are many problematic aspects of the methods used in reparative therapy and the motivations of those promoting it, but the core of the damaging nature of this type of conversion therapy is the idea that being queer is a mental disorder. Not only is this idea not scientifically supported (the APA officially declassified homosexuality as a disease in 1973), it is extremely damaging to teens and young adults who are struggling to justify and accept their own sexualities. It is easy to think about conversion therapy as an outlier that only affects a small percentage of queer youth, but this extreme example is a big part of creating a culture that regards LGBTQ people as sick or broken.

Speaking as a queer teen, the idea that it is legal to tell young people all over the country that their sexuality is something that needs to be fixed is terrifying. It only reinforces the destructive influences that I internalized growing up. I’ve had to fight continuously against a bombardment of societal and media portrayals of queerness as sick or broken in order to accept all the different parts of my identity. In this age of growing acceptance and respect for LGBTQ people and communities, outlawing conversion therapies is an important step towards creating a safer country for queer youth and making it clear that our sexuality and our identities are no less healthy than those of our straight peers. 

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