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'The worst time of my life': Irish research shows lasting harm of LGBT+ 'conversion therapy'

Participants used words like ‘traumatising’, ‘destructive’ and ‘horrendous’ to describe their experiences.

NEW IRISH RESEARCH has recorded the experiences of individuals who underwent ‘conversion’ practices targeted at the LGBT+ community, finding that the measures caused significant emotional harm.

Participants described the negative psychological effects with words such as ‘traumatising’, ‘destructive’, ‘anxiety provoking’, ‘horrendous’, ‘harmful’ and ‘damaging’.

So-called conversion ‘therapy’ consists of measures that try to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity from a marginalised one to heterosexuality or cisgenderism.

A team at Trinity College Dublin’s School carried out the new research, identifying that while there was previously some anecdotal evidence about the existence of the practice Ireland, there was no “robust evidence” about its prevalence or nature.

The study involved a research survey that heard from 70 individuals who were offered conversation practices and 38 who underwent them, with a smaller group of seven people who were exposed to conversion practices then interviewed in depth.

The research team also analysed the findings of 23 academic papers on the matter that were published between January 2020 and July 2022.

The study found “both short and long term harmful consequences for those exposed”.

One participant explained: “It was the worst time of my life, I kept thinking that there was something wrong with me and every time I had thoughts that were not according to the religion’s point of view I would pray that it would go away and I would be ‘normal’.”

Another said: “Guilt, stifling. I spent two years after it trying to actually accept the truth and myself. It also affected my perceptions of my parents, my trust in them, and my relationship with them.” 

The study outlined that the harms were “marked and enduring for those participants who had been exposed to formal practices over a longer timeframe to the extent that some had not resolved some of the issues at the time of interview”.

The harms extended to spouses and children where participants had been encouraged to marry, the study found.

The combined evidence from the study and existing academic research makes it “clear that conversion practices pose a significant risk to mental health”, the study said.

“In addition, conversion practices delay acceptance of sexual orientation or gender identity. For people of faith, the lack of ‘success’ may exacerbate guilt and perpetuate internalised homophobia or transphobia.”

Among the individuals who were interviewed, recovery depended on recognising their mental health had been affected and, where necessary, finding therapy that affirmed their sexuality or gender. For some, accessing a church or faith-based organisation that was LGBTI+ affirmative was also important for recovery.

For most, the conversion practices took the form of counselling or religious practices, with one survey respondent saying they underwent electro-convulsive therapy at the age of 12.

One individual described attending a “therapeutic program” that they were advised “would see you straight at the end of it”.

“It was a combination of kind of theology, psychobabble, psychotherapy, rooted in really strong beliefs about your sexuality being dysfunctional as a result of various childhood experiences, whether its childhood trauma or dominant mother, weak father stuff.”

Most were encouraged to enter into heterosexual relationships and told that heterosexual activity would help to end the same-sex attraction “phase”.

Many recalled being told to read certain books that reinforced outdated ideas about sexuality or attribute the ‘reasons’ for a man being gay to a father that “didn’t validate you” or mother who “overpowered you”.

They were told not to think about their sexuality, not to identify as gay, and to engage in stereotypical gendered activities, with one describing: “I was encouraged to go for pints with my dad and talk about sports to find something like that in common.”

They described their sexual orientation as being perceived as something based on sexual behaviour as opposed to an identity or something linked to emotions, relationships or romance.

One person said they were made to feel that their “sex life [was] something very dirty” and that “being gay was very much linked completely to what I did in bed.”

“So, it gave me a very poor perception of myself, of other men and vis-à-vis that you could have a relationship with another man. That you could have a loving fulfilling relationship.”

The same interviewee said they were prescribed an anti-depressant medication by a psychiatrist who they saw as part of a conversation programme. “But what I didn’t realise, well, what I now suspect is that the real reason I was being given these was because they are libido suppressants. It had nothing to do with their properties for any form of depression or any form of anything else.”

The current government has promised to enact legislation to end conversion therapy in Ireland.

Speaking on the publication of the research, Minister for Equality Roderic O’Gorman said that conversation practices are “cruel processes, rooted in shame and stigma, which seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or their gender identity” with impacts that can have “long-lasting harmful consequences on a person, especially those who are subjected to such dangerous practices at a young age”.

“Every LGBTI+ person deserves to feel safe from harm in Ireland, be accepted for who they are, and be supported to live full and equal lives,” the minister said.

“That is why the Government is moving to introduce a ban on conversion practices, which seek to further prejudice and suppress the lives of LGBTI+ people, and place shame on our difference.

“I welcome the research published today which represents an important step towards legislating for a ban on conversion practices. Legislating to prohibit conversion practices is a continuance of the State’s assertion of the equal dignity of LGBTI+ persons and is a priority for me.”

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