The controversial practice of conversion therapy, a pseudo-clinical technique whereby gay people are subject to conditioning procedures designed to change them into heterosexuals, continues to make news. Many LGBT groups have lobbied to have it outlawed, and numerous articles, books, and even a pair of dramatic films from 2018, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased, have depicted the operation as a cruel and bigoted form of brainwashing.
This seems reasonable enough. For a long time, certainly fifty or a hundred years ago, same-sex desire was a powerful urge no amount of legal persecution or social stigma could counter. Homosexuals had to express their feelings as much as straight people; indeed, the repression of all sex drives by religion, custom, or law has been blamed for every neurosis afflicting modern civilization. Conversion therapy, endorsed primarily by conservatives, is a vestige of a backward outlook on psychology and biology no legitimate health care professional should apply.
At the same time, however, our contemporary zeal for acceptance and inclusion, the visibility of gay and transgender advocates, and the regime of pharmaceutical and surgical treatments for “gender dysphoria,” may constitute another kind of conversion therapy – subtler than that used on the traditionalist fringe, perhaps, but no less damaging. After all, if it’s wrong to force a fundamentally gay person to deny his or her instincts, is steering inexperienced adolescents toward an established sexual orientation, or changing the physiologies of male and female bodies to reflect their owners’ current sense of self, any more humane? Like so many orthodoxies before it (e.g. recovered memory, multiple personality disorder, Satanic ritual abuse), gender dysphoria and related syndromes could well turn out to be ephemeral therapeutic fashions. The effects of the treatments devised in response to them may not be as short-lived.
One explanation for this, of course, is sheer self-interest. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to social workers and drug makers, every half-felt uncertainty about one’s intimate longings or one’s genitals looks like a problem to be medicalized. Even if there is no exploitation of individual patients, the entire complex of academic research and clinical jargon makes it inevitable that a range of subjective experiences are sorted into an approved diagnosis which in turn triggers an approved program of intervention. Today, a young person who ventures any mixed emotions around sexuality may soon be swept up by a stream of counselling, prescriptions, and hospitalization, supposedly for their benefit but more immediately beneficial to the counsellors, prescribers, and hospitals themselves.
The other factor here is politics. Skin color and ethnic heritage can’t be faked for outsiders, but who can dispute a claimed sexual preference or gender identity? In a society where demographic minority is routinely equated with heroic resistance, being gay or trans confers an enviable status within progressive communities of students and social networks (see Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s 2018 book The Rise of Victimhood Culture). Yet surely this too is a kind of conversion therapy, as hesitant kids are encouraged to define themselves in terms once reserved for worldly adults. Preteens or high schoolers can’t really “come out” of closets they were never in, but the vogue for LGBT activism may be pressuring the shy, the awkward, and the late blooming toward categorizations in which they don’t inherently belong.
In Anthony Burgess’s 1962 dystopia A Clockwork Orange, the teenage thug Alex undergoes a brutal barrage of drugs and aversion drills, administered by the state to render him a docile citizen. Burgess’s message (bluntly relayed in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film) was that morality cannot be coerced, that the criminal Alex is more authentically human than the reflexive civilian he is turned into. But in a critical essay, Stanley Edgar Hyman suggested the novel’s protagonist was already a kind of robot, whose learned malevolence was no less artificial than his induced mildness: “Alex always was a clockwork orange, a machine for mechanical violence far below the level of choice, and his dreary Socialist England is a giant clockwork orange.” How real are any selves we might be converted out of, or into? Conversion therapy can take many forms – overt indoctrination imposed by the intolerant on the unwilling, or invisible persuasion, leveled by the well-meaning against the unsuspecting. So perhaps every converter, convertee, and all of us in between, is equally, to quote A Clockwork Orange, “a victim of the modern age.”