A sweeping study of 27,000 transgender people confirms that conversion therapy is deadly.
Trans people who have undergone conversion therapy efforts to try to rid themselves of being transgender are more likely to suffer from mental illness and psychological trauma, and more likely to attempt or commit suicide, than those who received affirmation and support from experts and friends.
Particularly startling is the finding by several doctors, published in JAMA Psychiatry online, that trans adults who have undergone conversion therapy rather than supportive therapy or none are twice as likely to have attempted suicide than others. If the conversion therapy happened in childhood, the transgender adult is four times as likely to have attempted suicide.
Most of us think of evangelical Christian or Orthodox Judaism when we think about conversion therapy, in reference to many religious groups that believe God can convert homosexual men and women into straights. But conversion therapy can also be secular with no religious affiliation at all.
The attempt to change the sexual orientation or the gender identity, rather than to match and affirm the gender identity or orientation is harmful regardless of religious motivation. While many well meaning doctors have attempted to help patients reconcile their gender dysphoria, others have used barbaric methods to treat transgender or gay patients, including using the infliction of pain or shock to deter thinking patterns or behaviors.
Since 2012, conversion therapy has been banned in many states.
Professor William Byne, who teaches clinical psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons told The Washington Post, there is “considerable evidence that many of the mental health disparities experienced by transgender individuals are due to what we refer to as gender minority stress.” In other words, it isn’t that there is something inherently wrong with them, but “that they’re not valued equally in society as those who are cisgender.”
But the study and the ideas behind it have critics, as any study does. Predictably the results are protested by some right-leaning groups who don’t believe transgender people are equal, but they aren’t the only ones. There is a movement of ex-trans people who insist that over simplified affirmations led them ultimately to extreme mutilation without addressing the real roots of their problems. Their stories aren’t told in these studies, and are often vilified or dismissed as invalid experiences.
The Office on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity at the American Psychological Association is a very affirming association; but its director, Clinton Anderson, pointed out that the study is limited because it does not prove cause. Many studies make a mistake of pointing to correlations as cause. A simplistic example could include something like “Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarians are Nazis.” Parallels can exist and not cause each other.
Many critics have pointed out that transgender people who have experienced conversion therapy might have other common denominators, like being more psychologically impacted by being trans or more isolated than others—the same as regular people who have sought treatment over those who haven’t sought treatment. The most obvious common denominator might be “supportive parents.” Anyone sent to conversion treatment probably lacked a supportive home life.
Regardless, even most critics of the study still agree that conversion therapy is ineffective and unscientific.