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No, you can’t pray the gay away

Ann Widdecombe delivers a speech during a Brexit Party campaign event. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Ann Widdecombe delivers a speech during a Brexit Party campaign event. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

June 4, 2019   6 mins
June 4, 2019   6 mins

Ann Widdecombe, the newly elected Brexit Party MEP, has sparked yet another round of the “can we cure gay people?” discussion. Widdecombe was asked on Sky News about a piece she wrote in 2012. She’d written that people with gender dysphoria will receive medical help and psychological therapy, and so will “the infertile who desperately want children”: “Yet the unhappy homosexual should, according to gay activists, be denied any chance whatever to investigate any possibility of seeing if he can be helped to become heterosexual.”

Widdecombe, when asked about it on Monday, was not enormously successful in her attempts to pour oil on those troubled waters. “There was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa,” she said. “The fact that we think it is now quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean that science may not yet produce an answer at some stage.”

One way to tackle this is to write it off with a glib headline: “BREAKING NEWS. 71-year-old Catholic conservative has suspect views on homosexuality. More on this story as we get it.” Widdecombe is fairly advanced in her years, deeply religious and rather mad, so it is not surprising that she has views on LGBT matters that are offensive to younger, more secular, more tolerant people (and you wonder, if the Brexit Party is full of politicians like her, about its survivability as a political force as the older, more homophobic generations die off). But there’s more to it.

First, for all that Widdecombe uses the language of helping unhappy people, as in any other psychotherapy, the history of “gay cures” and “conversion therapy” is troubling. Much of the theory underpinning it comes from really odd post-Freudian psychoanalysis about seeking out an idealised “good penis” because of some trauma involving the patient’s mother; from 1952 to 1973 homosexuality was declared a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Until 1988 it still remained in there in the confusing name of “ego-dystonic homosexuality”.

And the treatment was often brutal. Some subjects had electric shocks applied to the hands or genitals as aversion therapy while they were shown homoerotic images, for instance. Others underwent electroconvulsive therapy – not the modern, safe and effective treatment for hard-to-treat depression, but the old kind, barely distinguishable from torture. In rare cases, brain surgery – lobotomies – were performed.

This is not ancient history but took place in Widdecombe’s lifetime – in the US, at least as recently as 1951, in West Germany at least as recently as 1969. The more modern “treatments” are less savage and sometimes a bit laughable – “praying the gay away” with a bit of Freudian nonsense thrown in – but still, you can understand why people would be deeply wary of any moralists coming along talking about “helping” “unhappy homosexuals” with therapy.

One reason that gay people might be unhappy is that large parts of society – including but not limited to many members of the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church – insist that they have need of a “cure” or an “answer”. You do wonder whether Widdecombe has, as she might claim, no concerns about “happy” gay people continuing to be gay, or if the language of providing therapeutic options for those who want it just is a mask for bog-standard homophobia.

But, you might ask, does this stuff work? Can you change sexuality? Could I become gay, if I wanted?

There are many difficulties with answering this question. One, how do you define “work”? Some early therapists, the proponents of lobotomies and electroshock therapy, claimed high levels of success – one scientist said that 58% of his patients were “cured”. But as others pointed out, they don’t appear to have changed sexual orientation; the brutal treatment simply made them less capable of sexual arousal of any kind. That doesn’t strike me as a victory worth celebrating.

There have been, as far as I can tell, very few good studies into whether this stuff works. That’s understandable, because most scientists wouldn’t want to start asking whether you can cure something they don’t think needs curing. But in 2001, Robert Spitzer, one of the psychologists who’d campaigned to get homosexuality removed from the DSM in 1973, published a study which suggested that some of the 200 homosexual people he’d interviewed had undergone some change in their sexuality following therapy, albeit not complete change.

That study, however, was heavily critiqued, and in 2012 Spitzer apologised for it, saying that the critiques were largely fair – the study relied on self-reported behavioural change, and for obvious reasons, people who have undergone voluntary conversion therapy will have an interest in saying that it worked. Another study in 2002 found that 88% of subjects saw no change, and just 4% found that it “shift[ed] their sexual orientation”. The remainder became largely asexual.

I am always wary of treating any single study as definitive, so I won’t. But it matches other, less formal evidence. For instance, according to the psychologist Richard Isay in his book Being Homosexual, the pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues “for many years attempted to find patients who had been converted from homosexuality to heterosexuality during therapy, and were surprised that they could not find one whose sexual orientation had been changed”. The ones who claimed they had were “simply suppressing homosexual behaviour” and “used homosexual fantasies to maintain potency when they attempted intercourse”. One said that, having been homosexual, he had “cut out all of that and don’t even think of men – except when I masturbate”.

You could also note the large number of prominent anti-gay voices who later turn out to be gay. There’s a website that counts down the number of days since that last happened. At the time of writing, it’s 135 days since, in fact, a Mormon gay conversion therapist came out as wanting to date men, and you’d think that if conversion therapy was going to work on anyone, it would be highly motivated people like that. And yet it consistently doesn’t.

There’s also the point that there is significant evidence that homosexuality is at least partly biologically influenced. For instance, the ratio of the length of your second finger to your fourth finger is linked to your exposure to androgen hormones in the womb, and appears to have a correlation with your sexuality. You can’t pray your fingers longer. You also can’t pray yourself into having fewer older brothers, and yet birth order – and specifically how many older brothers you have – seems to be correlated to your likelihood of being homosexual as well. You certainly can’t pray your DNA into different patterns.

As with most aspects of personality, it appears that the “shared environment” – all the stuff we have in common with our brothers and sisters, our upbringing and schooling – has little to no impact on our sexuality. These are fundamental parts of our lives, and yet they don’t make much difference: sexual preference is all about genes, chemicals in the womb – and sheer randomness.

It is very hard – if not impossible – to alter these deep-rooted aspects of who we are. It would certainly take more than a two-week course of therapy and some willpower.


‘We are not broken, and do not need fixing’

Julie Bindel recalls her experience at a gay-conversion centre in the US

In 2014, while researching a book I went undercover to a fundamentalist Christian counselling service in Colorado. I posed as an unhappy lesbian desperate to become “normal”, yearning to reunite with my family and with the church. My persona, Joanna, was a classic example of the type of lesbian who would have been fed negative messages about her sexuality all of her life.

I told my counsellor that, at the age of 16, I had been discovered kissing a girl in the kitchen of my home, had been thrown out by my parents, and disowned by the church.

But, rather than tell me about the gay-affirming churches that have been opened in both the US and the UK, attended by happy lesbian and gay Christians, my therapist told me that I was damaged, and needed healing. She tried to pick out examples from my childhood to blame for what might have damaged me even though I insisted I had been happy and loved by my parents.

She then suggested that perhaps I had been sexually abused by a male family member, but had buried the memory. By the end of this therapy, despite having been an out lesbian for almost four decades, and being totally “in character” as Joanna during the sessions, I felt depressed and anxious. It reminded me a little of how I felt as a 15-year-old, realising I was in love with my best friend, and being called a freak by the boys who had decided I was a lesbian because I didn’t want to date them.

I do not believe in the gay gene, but I do believe our sexuality and sexual attraction is pretty deep-rooted from early on in life. The reason I am so against conversion therapy, though, is because we are not broken, and therefore do not need fixing.

I love being a lesbian, and my heart breaks for those young women and men in religious communities that are tortured through this so-called therapeutic method. It should be illegal, and those that practice it should pay the price, not the lesbians and gay men who have to endure it.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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