“They Are Coming for Us”: Conversion Therapy, Now and Then

By Christopher M. Babits

On a warm autumn night, at an Olive Garden outside Dallas, I prayed with a psychiatric doctor and his wife. We had met a year earlier at the same conference we were at now—the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI). This annual meeting brings together people who practice and support sexual orientation change and gender identity therapies, and me—a historian of religion, gender, and sexuality in modern America. In between bites of breadsticks and chicken parmigiana, I asked the couple about their support for what’s often called “conversion therapy.” 

As of June 2017, nine states, in addition to a handful of cities and counties in four others, have banned conversion therapy for minors. Wikimedia Commons

The history of conversion therapy in the United States is long and complex. As my research in archives across the country has revealed, professional psychiatrists began to increase their focus on changing their patients’ homosexuality in the Great Depression. Schools like the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Columbia University had faculty members who trained generations of men and women to believe that same-sex desire could be eliminated through proper therapy and counseling. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially pathologized and medicalized homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), a reference work, now in its fifth edition, that offers a common language for mental disorders. For several decades, conversion therapy became a common prescription for gay men and lesbians. In the ensuing years, however, as gay men, lesbians, and sympathetic, often closeted, therapists challenged this pathological classification, many psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastoral counselors dug in for a long and contentious battle. Even though the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from the DSM in the early 1970s, some psychotherapists worked with government officials as well as the ascendant Religious Right throughout the 80s and 90s on legislative efforts to continue the criminalization of homosexual acts.

Hoping to learn more about conversion therapy from the 70s to the present day, I attended my first ATCSI meeting in 2015. I wanted to hear about the intellectual influences and religious beliefs of people who remain devoted to what by now is at best a controversial therapeutic practice. What I didn’t expect, though, was how willing the conference’s participants would be in helping me with my project.

The start of my first conference could not have been better. I sat down next to a psychiatrist, the husband of the same couple who would take me out to dinner the following year. I introduced myself as a historian interested in the intellectual and cultural history of sexual orientation change and gender identity therapies. Instead of brushing me off or viewing me with skepticism, he enthusiastically listed a host of academic and peer-reviewed articles that had influenced his views on conversion therapy. These articles stretched across his entire professional career, some from his training in the 70s and others that had been published in the 21st century. Although this was only the first of several conversations I had with this therapist, I’d already learned information that’s difficult for historians to gather: how ideas influence the beliefs and practices of a specific individual.

After this session, I grabbed some coffee and lingered amongst the other conference attendees. As a close-knit group, attendees immediately noticed my presence and it wasn’t long before others came up to me and asked who I was. Dr. Keith Vennum, the president-elect of the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the parent organization of the ATCSI, was one of the people who wanted to know who this outsider was.[1] After a short discussion, Vennum, a trained physician with a counseling degree from Liberty University, began introducing me to people he thought I should talk to for my project. I met the late Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the founders of NARTH and a longtime and controversial supporter of “reparative therapy” (his preferred term for conversion therapy). Networking with these men and women has been essential to my project’s progress. Even after leaving the conferences, people send me pro-conversion therapy articles and books and refer me to websites. They always respond to my (sometimes long) e-mail inquiries.

One of the themes that permeated the 2015 and 2016 conferences was how state- and city-wide bans on conversion therapy violated the therapists’ and patients’ constitutional rights. For instance, in a 2015 session on these bans, David Pickup, a licensed family and marriage therapist, declared that he’s “only asking to have a voice and protect our rights.” He pointed to the recent bans on conversion therapy as attacks on his way of life and the opportunity for his patients with unwanted same-sex attractions to receive the therapy they sought. In his view, secular humanists had gained control over American culture and had shown their willingness to oppress Christians. During the Q&A session that followed, audience members, of whom there were 18, reinforced this point. “The world is turning,” someone said. “They are coming for us,” insisted another.

Being put on the defensive has forced conversion therapists and their supporters to rethink how they name and market the therapeutic practices in which they believe. Going into the conference, I expected to hear about “reparative therapy,” the name Nicolosi has used to discuss sexual orientation change and gender identity therapies. What I found surprising were the new terms that were being suggested. At the 2015 conference, the acronym SOCE (pronounced “so-see”) was used the most. SOCE, or “sexual orientation change efforts,” represented an attempt to combat the politicization of “conversion therapy” and “reparative therapy.” In 2016, Nicolosi and others revealed a new term for the type of therapy they practice: Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy (SAFE-T). Rebranding these therapeutic beliefs and practices as SAFE-T was a clear attempt to counter opponents who claim that conversion therapy is dangerous, especially when it’s practiced on children. These efforts to rename conversion therapy also demonstrate how members of NARTH have, since the organization’s founding in the early 90s, understood the political implications of their work.[2]

What I realized by attending these conferences was that my dissertation must tackle not only the history of conversion therapy but also the current controversy surrounding its practice. As a historian interested in this living history, I know that I have to understand every side of the present moment in order to better comprehend the past. As a participant-observer at these conferences, I’ve also recognized that I must do my best to keep my feelings from coloring the lived experiences of the individuals and groups I study. Working in the field has taught me that, if anything, history at its best strives for empathy. By trying to understand conversion therapists on their own terms, I can tell a more nuanced history of an integral part of the American past.

[1] I only use the names of people who have held leadership positions within NARTH or who presented at the ATCSI conferences.

[2] I use “conversion therapy” in my work since it’s the best-known term for these therapeutic and counseling practices.

Chris Babits is a PhD candidate in US history at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation, “To Cure a Sinful Nation: Conversion Therapy and the Making of Modern America, 1930 to the Present Day,” has received funding from the following institutions: American Historical Association (Albert J. Beveridge Grant); Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Engaged Scholars Initiative); Columbia University (Libraries Research Award); Cornell University (Phil Zwickler Memorial Grant); Harvard University (Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America Dissertation Grant); Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Albert M. Greenfield Fellowship); Massachusetts Historical Society (New England Regional Fellowship); University of Chicago (Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowship); University of Minnesota (Elmer L. Andersen Research Scholars Award); University of North Texas (Special Collections Fellowship); Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (Lynn E. May Research Study Grant); Virginia Theological Seminary (African American Episcopal Historical Collection Travel Grant); and Yale University (Funded Runner-Up, LGBT Studies Research Fellowship). He can be reached at chris.babits@utexas.edu or on Twitter @chris_babits.

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