I am very pro-LGBT, however I have never understood the logic behind wanting to forbid voluntary conversion therapies, as many of my fellow peers do believe is a good idea.


If somebody, whether that somebody is gay or straight or trans or bi or whatever, doesn't feel comfortable with their sexuality and wants help to "convert" into something else... what could possibly be wrong with that?

It seems to me that forbidding such therapies is exactly the kind of intolerance and disrespect of other people's right over their own bodies that LGBT people suffer from themselves, and now we want to do the same to others?

NOTE: I am NOT talking about forced conversion camps targeting kids, that is obviously a horrible thing.

  • 8
    Are you thinking about a specific country? If yes, please add the appropriate tag. This should help receiving a more accurate answer.
    – Alexei
    Jun 6, 2018 at 10:33
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    Do you have examples of therapies not aimed at kids being forbidden? I've only ever heard of conversion in relation to children being forced to go.
    – Erik
    Jun 6, 2018 at 13:35
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    @Erik It was banned in Malta in 2016, including for adults; attempting to change a person's sexuality there is now an imprisonable crime. See bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38230937. I don't know of any other jurisdictions with similar laws, though they may exist.
    – Mark Amery
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:11
  • Note that none of the answers below touches on the 1st amendment in the United States. That's fine because you didn't specifically ask about the US and you didn't ask why the prohibition laws you reference might be ruled unconstitutional. But they might be, in the US, to the extent that they try to prohibit people from trying to "talk" people out of being gay. Jun 7, 2018 at 14:09
  • Bill was recently passed in Maryland (US) forbidding precisely this type of therapy universally.
    – doneal24
    Jun 8, 2018 at 18:07

8 Answers 8


Homosexual "conversion" therapies are a psychiatric medical treatment. Like all medical treatments they are subject to regulation. Details vary, but as a rule a medical drug or procedure is only permitted if:

  1. There is evidence that it works.

  2. Any negative side effects are less serious than the original problem.

The Wikipedia page I linked above has a list of references. One from the Pan-American Health Organisation (regional office of WHO), states that no rigorous scientific studies demonstrate any efficacy of efforts to change sexual orientation. However, there are many testimonies about the severe harm to mental and physical health that such "services" can cause. Repression of sexual orientation has been associated with feelings of guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

(On point 1, its true that "alternative" health products can be sold without demonstrating efficacy, but they can only do this by avoiding any specific claims of efficacy. This work-around does not apply to "conversion" therapies.)

  • 17
    "But as a rule a medical drug or procedure is only permitted if there is evidence that it works". This is not really factually accurate. In fact such procedures are very common and often either completely unregulated, or expressly permitted subject to regulation. The term is complementary and alternative medicine, and it is a huge industry.
    – JBentley
    Jun 7, 2018 at 1:37

Most of the laws in this area are billed as "consumer protection", under the theory that LGBT conversion therapies are seldom successful, and thus fraudulent.

Assemblyman Evan Low (D) said the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation is ineffective, The Associated Press reported.

As a gay legislator who leads the LGBT caucus, Low said the practice is a personal issue for him.

“This notion that we would accept as a legal practice that conversion therapy works is antithetical to my very existence in this body,” Low said.

Conversion therapy is harmful, Low said, and people who advertise or sell the misleading and fraudulent therapy should face a legal consequence.

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    +1 This is an important point. It's also illegal to sell magic beans that can cure cancer, because they won't do what you promise. If you're promising to change someone's sexual orientation, you're selling a service you can't deliver, based on the evidence linked in other answers to this question. Jun 7, 2018 at 22:45
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    Just curious then, how "alternative" medicines such as homeopathy are legal?
    – komodosp
    Jun 8, 2018 at 8:53
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    @colmde they usually don't claim to actually work. At least not where I live, because they're not allowed to say that. They carefully market words to give the idea of being a medicine while never outright claiming to be one.
    – Erik
    Jun 8, 2018 at 12:59
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    @Erik - so could LGBT conversion therapies not get away with using similar creative marketing?
    – komodosp
    Jun 8, 2018 at 14:16
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    @colmde It's unclear if the CA statute will survive as written. It's so broad it may infringe upon free speech rights. But Homeopathy comes under a different kind of scrutiny as they've made claims that, in many cases, can be proved false.
    – Machavity
    Jun 8, 2018 at 14:27

The notion that a person can "convert" their sexuality is mostly rejected by medical science and the LGBTQ community. People can of course be helped to understand their sexuality and gender, but that's rather different to trying to make them into some specific thing.

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    Rejected by medical science? Is there - within the field of medicine - (ie not psych, not gender studies, but medicine) publications on this? I'd be interested in reading that. [citation?]
    – Stian
    Jun 8, 2018 at 8:16
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    What makes you reject the field of psychology and what makes you think that psychology isn't the most relevant medical science covering this issue?
    – user
    Jun 8, 2018 at 21:14
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    because psych has poor prediction power, bad repeatability and not much of a theoretical connection to actual science. There are few theories that have endured rigorous testing. It is not science. Medicine is closer to being science and would be far more interesting if had a conclusive result.
    – Stian
    Jun 9, 2018 at 8:22
  • @StianYttervik So you are looking for a biological explanation of a psychological issue? You may be disappointed. In any case, psychology is a respected science and widely accepted by the law. Medical science recognizes many psychological conditions and treats them as equal to physical ones. Gender studies is not a science, by the way, it's the name of a field of study.
    – user
    Jun 9, 2018 at 22:58

NOTE: I am NOT talking about forced conversion camps targeting kids, that is obviously a horrible thing.

That's the problem, though. There is a pretty bad record of conversion therapy doing exactly that. Then you've got people practicing psychiatry without a license. There are enough quacks in that field without tossing in clergy.

How can you tell who's there of their own volition and who's there out of coercion? Just like in the prostitution industry, the line is not clear, and the record of abuses is long.

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    Could you add some of these records? I don't doubt them, but evidence would help this answer. Jun 6, 2018 at 14:21
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    This argument doesn't make much sense. By the same logic, ordinary medics, banks or car repair shops should also be banned, because there are some scammers around pretending to be them.
    – vsz
    Jun 7, 2018 at 4:12
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    @GGMG Problem is that decades ago those conversion therapies literally castrated some homosexual males... and now that's taken as "prove" of how harmful it is. I personally don't know how easy or hard it is to do properly, but I do think it's a human rights to for himself determine whether he believes homosexuality is or isn't natural (whether for reasons of evolutionary biology or for reasons of faith). Jun 7, 2018 at 9:04
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    Two people flagged this answer as "rude or abusive". While I don't think that this is a good answer (plenty of unsubstantiated claims and the fallacious argument that just because there is abuse in a system that the whole system is abusive and can not be fixed through better regulation), I can not really see what's "rude or abusive" about it.
    – Philipp
    Jun 8, 2018 at 17:24
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    @James You should go ahead and paste them as sources anyway. Otherwise it's just one person's unsubstantiated opinion, and you've essentially told us that its even an opinion on a topic you don't know much about.
    – JBentley
    Jun 9, 2018 at 2:13

The theory is that people ought to be allowed to manage their personal life personally without unnecessary interference and force of law should be used to protect any vulnerable population from suppression.

In most of the world considering these bans the protected population is only children and their vulnerability is obvious.

In Malta (thanks @MarkAmery) they protect adults too, the reasoning is that social pressure and bullying can effectively force people to undertake these steps and that should not be allowed.

  • +1 There's not concencus if it's even a choice or if we are somewhat born "wired" to be a gender or to prefer to follow a gender behaviour, geez there are even asexual people
    – jean
    Jun 6, 2018 at 19:08
  • @jean I was thinking of the most general thinking on rights, but I will edit to be more clearly in line with the specific issue.
    – user9389
    Jun 6, 2018 at 19:10

The short answer (as noted by a few others): It doesn't work. And to expand on that a little bit....

Assuming you're straight, do you think gay conversion therapy would work ? What exactly would it take you turn you gay ?

So to turn that question around then.... Why would you not ban conversion therapy ?
You have a service that has no measurable upside and huge downsides. You're causing mental problems. You're actually hurting people.

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    The analogy to straight->gay is a bit misleading. Generally homosexual conversion therapy is based around removing the attraction, not adding the opposite attraction. A better comparison would be to a hypothetical therapy that attempted to stop heterosexual people from finding the opposite sex attractive, as opposed to turning them gay.
    – JBentley
    Jun 7, 2018 at 1:41
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    The upside is that people should have the right to decide for themselves whether they believe homosexuality is natural. Whether they make that decision on the ground of evolutionary biology (the "no offspring" argument) or on the ground of faith, it should be something you can decide for yourself. It's one thing to protect a homosexual from another person (regardless of orientation) attacking them for their decision, it's another thing from forbidding someone from making those decisions for themselves. Jun 7, 2018 at 9:06
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    @DavidMulder Everybody is free to their opinions but if you think being gay is a choice you are wrong. Conversion therapy only exists to take advantage of people who are hurting and confused. You are attracted to whoever you are. It is a lie to tell somebody you can change that for them.
    – Marie
    Jun 8, 2018 at 17:24
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    @xyious There is a difference between the claim "it's a choice" and the claim "it's not the natural or right state of a human". Above I linked an answer outlining a variety of reasons why people believe this to be the case. Once you accept that for some people it's undesirable state, it becomes possible to respect the reality that they want help with it. The decision is not "Am I gay/bisexual/whatever", but "Do I think this is natural/right/correct" Jun 8, 2018 at 18:18
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    Yes, you can make people believe that it's not right to be gay.... But that won't change the fact that they're gay. The only thing you're doing in that case is making them uncomfortable with who they are, which leads (quite often) to suicide. How can this be a good thing in anyone's view ?
    – xyious
    Jun 8, 2018 at 18:42

Far more often than not, these 'therapies' are one side of a coercion-related issue, and that raises (or should raise) alarm bells everywhere for anyone who truly puts patients and their wellbeing first.

There are really only two ways that a practice of 'homosexual conversion' can come into existence, either:

  • some people have a philosophical (religious, societal) view that other people ought to have their sexuality changed; or

  • some people of their own volition seek help to change their sexuality.

It can't really come from anywhere else.
But look at the implications:

Case #1: Attempts to "change" others:

In the absence of an objectively harmful personality trait - not just a prejudice or religious belief - case 1 implies changing others mainly because you/your religion/your sociopolitical system thinks they shouldn't exist as they are (or even don't have a right to exist as they arre), even if it does no harm. If that doesn't raise alarm bells, it should.

As a starting point, whether or not sexuality is hard coded or not ('nature vs nurture') we can agree it is a deep and fundamental part of personality/"who we are" for many/most people, so changing it will usually be painful, raise deep conflicts, and probably cause long term psychological impact. If the person themselves doesn't wish it, and their present state is harm-free, then there simply isn't likely to be a gain appropriate to the risk.

Changing others because "we know it is how they should be" or "we know they will be happier" is usually flawed the same way.

Of course we know more than this. We know most of these cases of 'conversion therapy' instead do harm (we have and see reports), and we know they are overwhelmingly fuelled by societies and religious views that deeply disapprove of what they wish to change. So they are not even clinical motivated people, seeking least harm; those making such referrals or offering such 'therapies' are motivated by their beliefs that it is right to change others, and they likely to have (and often do have) a view that any enduring harm is justified/acceptable provided the person can be changed/saved/returned to 'right thinking'.

There are few things more poisonous than being convinced "I known what is best for someone else" or "I know how all people should be", if you really only know what your own beliefs are about what is best for them.

If that isn't enough to say "no" and enforce it in law as a form of pseudoscience medical/clinical/professional abuse, it should be.

Case 2: Self referral to change oneself:

Case 2 is equally problematic. A person wishes to change. We could argue that a person is entitled to want to change. Well, yes. But we need to be very careful before assuming that what we see is the reality.

In some cases, that may be quite legitimate and the reality. But one may have a concern (perhaps without proof) that this is far more often often a result of coercive pressure, which the person feels distressed by. For example, ostracism, disapproval of peers, bullying, and in many places risk of physical violence or death. Coercion could be blatant, but it could be unconscious or 'locked away' (denial), may be related to abuse/fear/assault in childhood, or it may be an external view absorbed and accepted over time, perhaps from far back in early childhood.

These seem far more common motivations for self referral, and should make us cautious about assuming it's truly what a client truly would ask for, in the absence of such past/present/outside pressures. Even in non-sexual therapeutic work, self understanding is often quite mistaken at the start, and the aim is to aid the client to recognise what is happening in them. But coercion on sexuality is so prevalent in society, and starts from birth (boys are like this, girls are like that), that an ethical therapist will take some time to explore this first, or at the same time, and not just assume, if a client arrives and asks to 'be changed'.

We can find more evidence by critically examining the wider context. If these people (who self refer) were truly motivated by their inner feelings, and not by a sense of what they "ought" to be or concerns of external acceptance/rejection/fear/coercive pressure, we would expect also to see some minority, however small, of heterosexual people self referring for 'conversion therapy' to be homosexual as well - but we don't at all.

That should raise really big alarm bells - why would referrals be one way only, when we know homosexuality is widespread in nature and in humanity, and especially when we know there is immense pressure that way but not the opposite way?

Maybe because one way is somehow "natural"? I don't think so - people who self refer would probably not give as a reason, "I feel perfectly happy being gay and all is fine, and no religious belief or social pressure or fears affect my decision, but philosophically it isn't natural so I'd like to change my sexuality anyhow, please help me."

Mainstream professional approaches:

The usual solution in psychiatry/psychology is not to seek and coerce pre-determined change. Rather, it is to help the person to grow and overcome their distress, or to develop ways to handle it. For example, a person might need to learn that they can "be themselves", or develop inner strength to handle a conflict in their lives, or to look at where a fear or feeling comes from.

These are rather more helpful approaches than trying to 'change' people to fit preconceptions. If that self-discovery leads to a change in sexuality, so be it. But the difference is, it would stem from healing rather than expectation.

How can we know this? Because unlike 'conversion therapies', when people do self-refer for sexuality related conflicts and it's not a coercive approach, we DO see two-way traffic. We see married men/women who discover they are gay/bisexual, as well as gay people who discover they are straight/bisexual, as we might expect.

That said, help directed at a specific change may be valid in some cases:

There are also of course cases where it may be valid to help someone with their sexuality.

For example, in real world situations where a person is conflicted, or faced with desires that don't fit their preconceptions, they may become less pained if they can examine the nature of their attraction and feelings. But this isnt conversion - it doesn't set out to take a person who feels sexuality A and 'convert' them to feel sexuality B.

Also if a person's sexual choices are actually capable of harm, there would be a real motive for attempting to make a specific change of that kind. I'm going to skip this obvious case because (1) it's obvious, (2) it's off topic, and (3) the obvious example is paedophilia and enough ignorance has been said conflating that with homosexuality that, to me, it would feel offensive to go there.


In the late 19th century, educated Westerners learned from scientists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing that homosexuality was essentially a disease. In the early 20th century, they may have heard from Freud that it is an expression of a person's self and needs. In 1973 when "being gay" was legalized by its removal from the DSM, they learned that homosexuality is not a problem... and in the 2000s that homosexuality also refers to a sense of identity in community with others who feel the same way.

Each time, the notion of "sexual orientation" changed, subtly or not. Before 1973, as reported by James Harrison in the 1992 documentary "Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker", a gay man could be subjected by the state to transorbital ("icepick") lobotomy... which had a mortality rate up to 5 percent. After 1973, lobotomy and other interventions were the subject of due anger.

People who wish never again to subject others to such harmful practices see the benefit of removing them from government-sponsored health treatment plans.

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