Will we be changed? The dark possibilities of gay conversion therapy

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Brexit Party MP Ann Widdecombe has received a lot of negative press recently for comments she made regarding gay conversion therapyin an interview with Sky magazine. Gay conversion therapy is a dark and antiquated practice that suppresses individual identity and often causes irreperable damage to mental health. Widdecombe claimed that science may “produce an answer” to being gay, suggesting queerness is a problem to be solved .

She compared it to gender transitioning, stating that “there was a time when we thought it was quite impossible for men to become women and vice versa.”

She went on to comment, “The fact that we think it is now quite impossible for people to switch sexuality doesn’t mean that science might not be able to produce an answer at some stage.”

Despite the superficial logic of comparing gender to sexuality, Widdecombe’s comments make dangerous implications for science and human rights. She failed to adequately consider the role science plays in the expression of individual identity and the freedom of an individual to live their lives without discrimination.

However, the most frightening aspect of her comments – is that she may have a point. At least from a scientific standpoint.

For many years, the science behind gay conversion therapy was sparse. In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) formed a task point to comprehensively review all the studies from the 1960s to 2007 about interventions to change the orientation of gay, lesbian, and the gender identity of transgender people.

To no surprise, the report concluded that genuine sexual orientation change is uncommon. A few studies indicated reduced sexual responses to same-sex pornography, often through barbaric “aversion therapy,” in which subjects are given electric shocks or nausea drugs in Pavlovian effort to associate negative feelings with same-sex attraction. But this is a far cry from a true change in sexual orientation, not to mention a cruel and unusual form of “therapy.”

Moreover, these efforts have negative consequences for the youth subjected to them, including anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings. However, these harms still are not fully understood.

“Unfortunately, much of the research in the area of sexual orientation change contains serious design flaws,” said psychologist Judith Glassgold, who chaired the APA task force. “Few studies could be considered methodologically sound and none systematically evaluated potential harms.”

However, this does not preclude the possibility of efficient, modern conversion therapies. Brian Earp, Associate Director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy, wrote a 2015 article for The Conversation about some of these possibilities and their ethical considerations. He proposes two categories of conversion technologies that are not far away from a scientific standpoint.  

First are current and emerging technologies that could reduce, but not reorient, same-sex desires. These “anti-love biotechnologies” currently take the form of drugs that regulate testosterone and are sometimes administered to sex-offenders as a condition of parole. Similarly, a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have documented effects on libido.

Second are theoretical “high-tech conversion therapies” that would be capable of changing a person’s sexual orientation my modifying genetic, epigenetic, neurochemical and other brain-level factors. These therapies, unlike anti-love biotechnologies, are mercifully only a philosophical idea for now. But Earp warns that the more research is undertaken to understand the involuntary, brain-level origins of sexual orientation, the more possible it becomes to theoretically alter these states.

“Based on current scientific research, it is not unlikely that medical researchers – in the not-too-distant future – will know enough about the genetic, epigenetic, neurochemical and other brain-level factors that are involved in shaping sexual orientation that these variables could in fact be successfully modified,” he writes.

This has dangerous implications for the “Born this Way” mantra of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

After all, if genetics and hormones are primarily responsible for sexual orientation, who is to say it will not one day become possible to alter these factors, or test for them in-utero?

While at the surface it may appear that Earp and Widdecombe are making similar arguments, there is a key distinction. While Earp warns us of the frightening implications for science and human rights of possible gay conversion therapies, Widdecombe uses these possibilities to bolster her arguments for these therapies.

Moreover, Widdecombe implies that because science could one day successfully convert sexual orientation, it is inevitable that it will. More perniciously, she implies that this is acceptable.

Science does not operate in a vacuum. It is not a separate lane of human practice working at a distance from the concerns of society, ethics, and human rights. Science has an obligation to continue to work towards the benefit of all the expression of individual identity.

Statements like Widdecombe’s illicit a fear that science may work against these aims. Science may become a tool of oppression. These fears are not unfounded. One only has to look briefly into the history of eugenics or science during the Holocaust to see how science can become a vector for hatred.

But scientific possibility does not have to translate into terrifying reality. As people around the world continue to celebrate Pride month, it is important we both remember this very real fear and refuse to bow down to it.

Though if high-tech conversion therapies do become a reality, the mantra of the LGBTQ+ movement may have to change from “Born this Way” to “Won’t be Changed.”

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Karolina Zięba

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