Conversion Therapy Fantasies and Religious Opposition to LGBTQ-inclusive Education

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Catherine Taylor, University of Winnipeg
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

As we look towards International Human Rights Day on 10 December, I share the frustration of many students, parents, and educators that as a nation we often stand timidly by while LGBTQ young people are being hurt in hostile school cultures, citing our reluctance to choose sides between religious rights to disapprove of homosexuality and gender variance on the one hand, and the rights of all Canadians to a safe and respectful education, on the other hand. The issue is often framed in public discourse as a stalemate between the Charter right of freedom of conscience and religion, and the Charter rights of life, liberty, and security of the person. I believe this representation of the situation to be in error. I see nothing in LGBTQ-inclusive education that threatens anyone’s freedom to maintain LGBTQ-phobic beliefs if their conscience or religion requires them to do so. Rather, I see much in maintaining LGBTQ-phobic school cultures that threatens many people’s life, liberty, and security: sexual and gender minority children and youth, children and youth with sexual and gender minority parents, and conventionally gendered heterosexual children youth who are sometimes targeted as well.

One claim frequently made by religious conservatives to justify the maintenance of LGBTQ-phobic school cultures is that LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum (which they typically call “pro-homosexual curriculum”) can influence students to become gay or to stay gay when they could, with the right guidance, become heterosexual. For example, parents opposing Louis Riel School Division’s new policy are quoted in a November 2011 article in the Winnipeg Free Press as saying,

“They [the policies] were all geared toward the promotion of the homosexual or gay lifestyle. My question is, would you also want to present the resources for those people who seek counseling to remove themselves from that lifestyle? True education would give both, and let the student decide.”

Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that sexual orientation can be changed through curriculum or “counseling.” If education worked this way, almost everyone would be heterosexual. What is true is that exposure to LGBTQ-inclusive education may influence some LGBTQ students to stop pretending to be heterosexual and/or conventionally gendered (the old being/doing distinction), which is an entirely different question.

"Lay people might be confused about this, but the Vatican is not. In his lengthy 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or “enforcer” of Church law, now Pope) requires that people with the “homosexual condition” be counseled to resist their “urges.” At no point does he suggest that sexual orientation itself could be changed by such efforts. Ratzinger acknowledges that homosexuality is inborn, at least in some people, but nevertheless constitutes an inclination to “evil” acts, and gay people are admonished to exercise self-control and strive to achieve salvation through devotion to God. Within this system of rationality, it can make sense to maintain school cultures that encourage gay students to be ashamed of being gay and to pretend to be heterosexual." Claims of enabling gay people to change their sexual orientation through conversion therapy usually turn out to be claims of enabling gay people to resist their homosexual desires and “remove themselves from the lifestyle,” which is a much more limited ambition. There have been many media reports refuting the success of so-called “conversion therapies” in making homosexual people heterosexual, and the American Psychological Association (APA) renounced the practice as not only potentially damaging but bad science in its 2009 report, Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation:

The American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation conducted a systematic review of the peer-reviewed journal literature on sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) and concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of SOCE practitioners and advocates. . . . [T]he task force concluded that the population that undergoes SOCE tends to have strongly conservative religious views that lead them to seek to change their sexual orientation. Thus, the appropriate application of affirmative interventions for those who seek SOCE involves therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients and the facilitation of clients’ active coping, social support, and identity exploration and development, without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome. [Abstract]

That last phrase, “sexual orientation identity” is an interesting one. What APA found was that a minority of people experienced short-term (6 month) reductions in same-sex attractions. Very few people experienced long-term reductions. A minority experienced short-term increases in opposite-sex attractions, but these were primarily people who had also experienced opposite-sex attractions before conversion therapy. However, some people did experience an increased sense of entitlement to identify as heterosexual after SOCE, even though their sexual attractions remained homosexual.

This outcome, conceptualized as “heterosexual orientation identity” in a number of studies, involves an individual working through SOCE to resignify the category “heterosexual” from “attracted to the opposite sex” to “supporting heterosexual values and resisting same-sex attractions.” The work is motivated by a strong need to see oneself as heterosexual in order to avoid dissonance with a cherished belief structure, usually religious, that condemns homosexuality. In recent years with the dramatic changes in attitudes to LGBTQ people in most parts of society, people entering SOCE are predominantly strongly religious White men who believe that their sexual orientation is irreconcilable with their religious beliefs.

Some parents, however, seem genuinely to believe that sexual orientation itself can be changed, and that the school system’s time-honoured combination of tolerating homophobia and enforcing heterosexism will help their gay children become happy heterosexuals. It will not. So-called conversion therapies ranging from prayer, compassionate counseling and ex-gay support groups to aversion training involving electroshock, maggots and pornography have all failed to turn homosexual people into heterosexual people. The completely heterosexual curriculum to which students have been exposed throughout Canadian history has been similarly unsuccessful in making gay students heterosexual. Parents should be aware that such measures, whether they be faith-based, home-based, or school-based, will at best reconcile their gay child to a lifetime of feeling ashamed of their “condition” and pretending to be heterosexual.

As Canadians we have seen an analogous example of conversion therapies applied to “race” and ethnicity rather than sexual orientation in the residential school system, where children were taught to be ashamed of being Aboriginal and to identify with Britishness. If parents have received the message that conversion therapies can actually kill the homosexual in their child, they should be aware that there is no scientifically rigorous evidence to support this claim. Perhaps religious conservatives would be prepared to rethink their support for conversion therapy and curricular silence if they understood that the likely outcome of these efforts is not a heterosexual child but an unhappy one.

Those parents who would nevertheless opt for conversion therapy are perhaps afraid that if their gay or lesbian child decides not to pretend to be heterosexual, they will be doomed to a lonely life at the margins of society and subjected to terrible discrimination. While that fear may have been well-founded in earlier periods of Canadian history, and may still be true if the individual stays in one of the aggressively LGBTQ-phobic pockets of Canadian society, it is by no means generally true in Canada today. Polls, including one by Angus Reid in September 2009, show that Canadians are generally not homophobic. They understand that being gay or lesbian or transgender is what one is, not a choice one makes, like being Ukrainian or Ojibway or female. Canadian law has been overhauled to remove discriminatory measures, and employers routinely offer same-sex pension, health, and other benefits.

However, many of our school systems remain frozen in time, largely because officials are fearful of complaints from socially conservative parents, and we let wave after wave of LGBTQ youth endure fear, anxiety, depression, isolation, and bodily harm caused by homophobic harassment and exclusion. Occasionally the inevitable outcome of this recipe for disaster makes the news, and people across the country briefly rally around yet another LGBTQ youth suicide, aghast at the cruelty of children who bullied him.

Mercifully, there are signs of hope: Courageous students and teachers and school officials who are working hard to bring school culture into the 21st century. Our National Climate Survey found that 58 percent of heterosexual students reported that they are distressed to some degree when they hear homophobic language. We know that LGBTQ students wish that educators were more proactive on this issue. That 58 percent suggests that heterosexual students, too, would welcome some help from the adult world in this regard. And in some parts of Canada, adults are rising to the occasion. Many school divisions and several Ministries of Education are addressing the issue of LGBTQ-phobic bullying, and some are recognizing that harassment will not stop in the hallways until LGBTQ people are treated respectfully in the classrooms. Teachers’ associations, some of which have been working on LGBTQ education for years, are increasing their efforts. Manitoba Teachers’ Society is partnering with my SSHRC-funded research team on a project designed to surface the great wealth of expertise and experience in LGBTQ-inclusive education that exists in teachers across the country who have been working on this issue for years in isolation or in small clusters, often with little institutional support, and sometimes in socially conservative faith communities that actively oppose their efforts.  As long as we fantasize that harassment policies are enough and that LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is not needed, students will continue to learn what our silence is teaching them: that human rights do not apply to LGBTQ people, and that there is no need to treat them respectfully if you’d rather not.

For religious conservatives, the crux of the issue often seems to be a mistaken belief that a heterosexist curriculum coupled with conversion therapy can make their gay children heterosexual, and I am grateful to the APA for clarifying that it cannot. However, the confrontation between socially conservative religion and LGBTQ rights continues to be played out at the cost of needless misery for LGBTQ students. I hope that researchers in a range of disciplines will turn their attention to opposing religious conservative campaigns against the life, liberty, and security of LGBTQ children and youth. In their very useful analysis of Canadian jurisprudence concerning “Religion-based Claims for Impinging on Queer Citizenship,” Bruce MacDonald and Donn Short argue that, “[a] person ought not to be permitted to make his or her inclusion dependent on the exclusion of another.”  

Catherine Taylor is a Professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing and Communications at the University of Winnipeg.


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