Health and Wellness

A new study finds conversion therapy is really bad for trans people. Who could have guessed?

A child on the ground, maybe crying.
Photo: Shutterstock

Suppose you had decades of studies showing that drop-kicking puppies was bad for their mental health and led to maladjusted dogs. Further studies on drop-kicking canids are banned because drop-kicking was found to be cruel and ineffective.

Would you have to spend decades drop kicking kittens to make the same conclusion about the mental health effects on cats, because the two are so dissimilar? Of course not, because the one can readily draw the conclusion that drop-kicking living beings is bad for them.

Related: A shockingly high number of transgender Americans are forced into conversion therapy

Which brings me to conversion therapy. It is now a nearly universal truism that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation are cruel and ineffective. Every major medical and mental health organization opposes conversion therapy because the research showed it to be harmful and ineffective.

NARTH is effectively dead after an attempt at rebranding itself. Exodus International has shut down. Leaders of the ex-gay movement are coming out one after another and admitting they’re still gay and that shaming people into pretending to be straight is harmful.

However, until now almost all of the research on the harms of conversion therapy had concentrated on the effects of it on lesbians and gays. As a result, religiously motivated conservatives and anti-transgender “feminists” (many of whom are associated with the religious right) have been pushing the narrative that conversion therapy works when applied to transgender people, and particularly children.

Project Blitz, the evangelical playbook for their efforts in politics, even treat transgender people as a public health hazard that needs to be discouraged or cured (presumably with legal coercion or conversion therapy of some sort).

The medical community has long known that efforts to change someone’s gender identity were futile. The World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) states in its standards of care that, “Treatment aimed at trying to change a person’s gender identity and expression to become more congruent with sex assigned at birth has been attempted in the past without success, particularly in the long term. Such treatment is no longer considered ethical.

However, there was little study of how attempts to change a person’s gender identity affected the mental health of transgender people, as had been done for lesbians and gays. While most people assumed that futile attempts to coerce transgender people into stifling their gender identity would have similar consequences to doing the same thing to lesbians and gays, the religious right and their allies used this knowledge gap to promote conversion therapy on transgender people.

They argued that because transgender people have such poor mental health outcomes in the aggregate, surely conversion therapy was less harmful than letting people transition, because transgender people were different when it came to conversion therapy.

That knowledge gap is now gone, and it supports what transgender people and the mental health community have been saying for years: conversion therapy on transgender people is really bad for them, and even worse for children.

A new study using the largest available dataset of transgender people in the United States came out in September 2019, and it found that conversion therapy on transgender people greatly increases the risk of suicide attempts over the course of their lives.

The study, by Dr. Jack Turban, found that of the 27,000 transgender respondents to the survey, 13.5% had been subjected to conversion therapy. Those who had undergone conversion therapy were twice as likely as the rest of the cohort to have attempted suicide. For adults who had been exposed to conversion therapy before the age of 10, the risk of suicide attempts was four times higher.

Turban’s analysis of the data also found that two-thirds of the transgender people reporting exposure to conversion received it from psychological professionals, and about a third received it from religious figures like priests or pastors. The increase in suicide attempts held true regardless of whether the therapy came from secular or religious sources.

This study directly contradicts two of the biggest talking points by those promoting conversion therapy.

They use the dubious claim that conversion therapy is appropriate for transgender youth because 80% of transgender children desist, and because you can’t tell which ones will desist and which ones won’t. Never mind that the originator of the desistance narrative later admitted that 70% of his patients were “sub-threshold” under the current DSM, meaning that he claimed to cure children who were not transgender in the first place.

Another proponent of desistance looked at his data again and found that actually, yes, you can make a good assessment of which children actually have gender dysphoria. This new study by Turban shows that the therapies espoused by people trying to change children aren’t harmless: they appear to result in life-long mental health problems.

The other argument used by promoters of conversion therapy on transgender people is that, given the generally poorer mental health outcomes of the transgender community, surely conversion therapy must be helpful. This argument makes the faulty assumption that you can make a person “not trans,” and now we know because of this new study that exposure to conversion therapy is highly correlated with even worse mental health outcomes than the rest of the transgender community.

This study represents a big deal within the scientific literature on transgender people, because it closes the loop on why the consensus of actual professionals who work with transgender people is what it is.

Gender identity is an intrinsic trait with biological origins. You cannot change a person’s gender identity with conversion therapy. Such efforts are not just futile, they are immensely damaging.

Familial support and affirmation are the best predictors of good mental health outcomes for transgender people. Conversely, rejection (including conversion therapy) is immensely harmful.

The vast majority of the legitimate, peer reviewed scientific evidence supports transition, and a Cornell University meta-study concluded, “93% (of studies) found that gender transition improves the overall well-being of transgender people, while 7% report mixed or null findings. We found no studies concluding that gender transition causes overall harm.

In short, this should in a rational world close the door permanently on trying to change a person’s gender identity. Anyone who persists in these efforts to promote conversion therapy on transgender youth is not promoting the best interests of the individual, but is instead pushing an agenda that rejects scientific consensus at the expense of a disfavored minority.

Itali Marlowe was shot to death last month. Her roommate is a suspect.

Previous article

6 key moments from the CNN/HRC LGBTQ Town Hall

Next article