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Can therapy make a gay person straight?

August 7th, 2009

Dr Petra

Short answer? No.

A growing body of research evidence has proved ‘treatments’ for homosexuality are not effective. As of this week the American Psychological Association have taken the important step of adopting a resolution stating “mental health professionals should avoid telling clients that they can change their sexual orientation through therapy or other treatments”. Their resolution also recommends “parents, guardians, young people and their families avoid sexual orientation treatments that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder and instead seek psychotherapy, social support and educational services ‘that provide accurate information on sexual orientation and sexuality, increase family and school support and reduce rejection of sexual minority youth.’”

The full APA task force report Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation is available here. It’s a must-read for therapists, educators, health care providers and parents. You may also find the APA’s FAQs on homosexuality helpful.

In the UK we’re aware of a growing body of research indicating psychological ‘treatments’ for homosexuality are ineffective and may increase mental distress (find links to research on this here). It’s worth noting there is no official position to outlaw such approaches. Meaning someone with questions about their sexuality could well still be seen by a therapist who offers ‘conversion therapy’, or a GP who believes you can ‘cure’ someone of being gay, or a school teacher who recommends a young person goes for ‘reparative’ therapy.

There is a group of therapists, academics and educators who have formed an awareness group to tackle this issue. Treatmentshomosexuality.org aims to offer advice on why such therapies don’t work, and collect information from therapists and patients who’ve been involved in such ‘treatments’. They are among a growing group of professionals aiming to outlaw reparative therapy for homosexuality. This week they’ve been joined by the UK’s National Secular Society who have contacted the British Psychological Society and Royal College of Psychiatrists to request they adopt the APA’s position.

For many people who think they may be lesbian, gay or bi, there can be major concerns about their sexuality. That may be due to being raised within a homophobic culture or family environment, or simply not feeling certain about sexual feelings. Some lesbian, gay and bi people do report problems with mental health – sometimes caused by past abuse, bullying or simply fears over being rejected over their sexuality. That does not mean they are sick, need ‘curing’ or experience of mental distress is a sign they shouldn’t be gay. A sympathetic therapist would work with someone to help them identify what they feel about their sexuality. They would not tell someone who had feelings for the same gender they were sick or attempt to ‘cure’ them of this, any more than they would push someone towards ‘being gay’ if that wasn’t what a person appeared to want.

Questioning your sexuality doesn’t mean you are or aren’t lesbian, gay or bi. It’s not a sign being homosexual is wrong, just that you need a safe space to reflect on your sexuality. It’s a good thing to question your sexuality whether you’re gay or straight. What’s unhealthy is making out ‘straight’ = ‘normal’ and pushing folk into a sexuality that is unreflective of their orientation.

If you have any questions about homosexuality, you may find these series of films courtesy of Pink Therapy helpful (click on this link and go to ‘self help videos’). This includes advice on how to know if you’re gay. The Pink Practice is a helpful place to get support if you are lesbian, gay or bi and need psychological support, while MIND have useful factsheets for lesbians, gays and bis on mental health and dealing with doubts about your sexuality. Go Ask Alice have a number of helpful answers to questions about those with worries about sexuality.

I fully back the APA’s proposal and with colleagues will be petitioning professional organisations in the UK to adopt the same policy. I would encourage you to do the same. Please write to the British Psychological Society, Royal College of Psychiatrists, and British Medical Association and ask them to adopt the APA’s position. Tessera has a great blog further reinforcing the reasons why we need to do this.

I would also encourage you to identify those who are offering ‘reparative therapy’ and highlight their poor practice, lack of awareness of evidence, and point out to them the APA’s ruling. If we get this adopted in the UK we’ll be able to outlaw those offering ‘reparative therapy’ which will improve the mental wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bi and straight people.

And in case you need a simple answer to anyone talking about homosexuality it’s this. Being gay is not a sickness. Therapy will not stop you being gay. But it’s fine to get support for your mental wellbeing whatever your sexuality. A kosher therapist will never force you to change your sexual orientation.

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