How bad is ‘conversion therapy,’ also known as ‘pray-the-gay-away’?

Conversion therapy for gay and lesbian teenagers became infamous after the 2007 “South Park” episode “Cartman Sucks.” Butters Stotch’s parents thought he was “bi-curious” and sent to him a pray-the-gay-away camp, where several youth committed suicide after being told they were sexually confused. Photo: Comedy Central.

“Conversion therapy,” also called “pray the gay away” and “ex-gay conversion therapy,” is the attempt to use counseling or psychotherapy to change someone’s sexual orientation by eliminating their sexual desires for members of their own sex.

Sound absurd and bonkers? It is.

That’s why the American Psychological Association and other professional counseling organizations have widely discredited “conversion therapy” as ineffective, unethical, and dangerous. The American Psychological Association found that efforts to change sexual orientation harmed some people rather than helping them, leading to increased distress and depression, as well as negative self-image.


Seven states and the District of Columbia have successfully passed legislation to ban or restrict conversion therapy in some way. California was the first to do so, banning the practice for minors in 2012; others are Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont.

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Some of the earliest mentions of  “conversion therapy” were in mid-19th century, when being gay was viewed as “either a criminal act or a medical problem, or both,” according to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association.

In 1952, homosexuality was included as a mental illness in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (better known as the DSM), and a variety of barbaric procedures aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation were introduced.


How barbaric is “conversion therapy”?

Some therapists used electric shock treatments or induced nausea, vomiting or even paralysis when their patients had “same-sex erotic” thoughts. Other people were told to wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap it whenever they were attracted to a member of the same sex.

In 1965, Time magazine ran an article with the headline “Homosexuals Can Be Cured.”

Despite intense resistance from gay rights leaders at the time, these gross treatments were practiced into 1970s.

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One light at the under of the tunnel — In 1973, psychiatric groups removed homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM.

Since then, dozens of major mental health, medical and LGBT rights groups have criticized “conversion therapy,” from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the National Association of Social Workers.


The tactic became infamous after the 2007 “South Park” episode “Cartman Sucks.”  Butters Stotch’s parents thought he was “bi-curious” and sent to him a “pray-the-gay-away” camp, where several youth committed suicide after being told they were sexually confused and going to Hell.

At the end of the episode, Butters criticizes camp leaders and their looney methods, saying he’s not confused — they are.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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