Groups promoting “conversion therapy” have begun co-opting the language and symbols of LGBTQ equality and civil rights efforts to appeal to LGBTQ people and encourage them to join their movements, experts say.
“Conversion therapy” is a dangerous practice that claims to change a person’s sexuality or gender identity through a number of distressing techniques. It has been shown to cause longterm damage and has been rejected by medical associations as harmful.
Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said that although the “conversion therapy” movement has always rebranded itself throughout its history, its current methods co-opt legitimate conversations about about gender and sexuality. That’s troubling, she said, because it leads families to harmful organizations and practices without knowing what they’re doing.
“Today, we see some conversion therapy practitioners adapting by capitalizing on modern fears and misunderstandings about gender identity or abusing new understandings of sexual fluidity to suggest that because sexuality does change for some people, it can or should for anybody,” she said. “That’s not true and only feeds into homophobic or transphobic stigma that causes real harm to LGBTQ people.”
The challenges with these new approaches have also been raised in a newly released documentary on Netflix.
Kristine Stolakis is the director of “Pray Away,” a documentary that first aired in June and focuses on former leaders of “conversion therapy” movements, including people who were part of Exodus International, an ex-gay organization that shut down in 2013 and did policy work for the Family Research Council, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Although the documentary centers around the leaders of those groups, many of whom now oppose everything they once stood for and are living as openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, Stolakis makes it clear that the larger movement is still alive and well and being pushed by groups like Freedom March, which has nearly 11,000 followers on Facebook and was founded by Jeffrey McCall, a self-described former transgender woman.
Freedom March, which claims on Facebook that it celebrates “freedom from homosexual/transgender lifestyles by the grace and power of Jesus Christ,” uses rainbow colors often associated with the LGBTQ Pride flag in its logo and branding.
“What we’re seeing is that the current ex-LGBTQ organizations are actually rebranding in some ways and describing their work in language that might look very confusing, that might actually look a little affirming,” Stolakis told NPR earlier in August. “[These organizations] adopt language from various types of civil rights discourse and even the LGBTQ rights movement.”
She added that the current movement is “very millennial-driven.”
Mathew Shurka, co-founder of Born Perfect, a project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights that focuses on ending “conversion therapy,” is a survivor of the practice. He was first subjected to the “therapy” in 2004, at 16 years old, and part of his treatment included not being allowed to communicate with his mother or his sisters for years out of fear that his closeness with them was tied to his sexual orientation.
Shurka said that besides Freedom March, other groups have pushed similar messages in recent years. Anchored North, an evangelical group based in California, for instance, released short videos appealing to LGBTQ youth. According to a 2018 openDemocracy article, one of those videos reached nearly 6 million people on Facebook.
The video in question features a woman who talks about her life as a lesbian and claims she later learned from Bible study that she could change. She suggests she was “not born with right affections, that’s why Jesus had to come.” By the end of the video, she is seen sitting next to a man who appears to be her partner.
The video’s YouTube description reads in part, “Powerful Coming Out Story – Love is Love.”
“That’s really powerful for a teenager who does feel lost and may or may not have come out to their parents yet,” Shurka said.
Shurka also referred to the “Changed Movement,” a program of Church United, which he said is succeeding at reaching people on social media. Church United aims to “change and shape the moral culture of our communities in California.”
“Now we’re in that place where every idea can grow on the internet including anti-vaxxers and Q-Anon and the like, so what we’re seeing now is that even though we’re seeing ‘conversion therapy’ slow down in these large organizations like Exodus, we are seeing growth in pro-conversion therapy messaging online,” he said. “We are seeing new groups that didn’t exist before online.”
Some “conversion therapy” practitioners have used the language of civil rights movements to advocate for themselves. A group called the National Task Force for Therapy Equality says its mission is “to secure therapy equality for clients that experience distress over unwanted same-sex attractions and identity conflicts,” for example.
There are also new legislative threats on the horizon that have experts worried.
Though the efforts have so far been unsuccessful, they’re still a concern, both Pick and Shurka said.
“That put us on defense. We’ve been on defense before but not like that as a movement,” Shurka said.
“There was one bill that actually got a hearing [in Arizona] and it was the first time that I had to testify and we asked survivors locally to testify against the bill…. We’ve never been in that scenario before.”