Conversion therapy is a nasty euphemism used to denote a form of torture that involves trying to ‘cure’ LGBTQ+ people of their LGBTQ+ness, be it changing their sexual orientation or suppressing their gender identity. It’s violent, abusive and practised widely around the world, including in the UK, and as far as I’m concerned should be criminalised and declared a human rights abuse. The cultural conversation often focuses on particular instances of conversion therapy as practiced by an institution (e.g. the church) during a specific course (e.g. a summer camp, evening classes). These institutions and courses are designed to cure people, and are run by people who believe that being LGBTQ+ is an illness. I would add that conversion therapy isn’t limited to these places. In fact, the very experience of being queer within a cisheteropatriarchal society is like being subjected to constant conversion therapy.
From my own experience of being queer people have regularly tried to cure me. “Are you sure?” people have asked of my sexuality. “What about dating a woman?” “Why do gay people always have to rub it in our faces?” “Children shouldn’t hear about these sorts of things.” What all these phrases have in common is a desire to change me – whether it’s for me to be less gay or not to be gay at all. I use the word gay here, rather than queer, because many of my oppressors still refer to me as gay, even though I ask them to identify me as queer – yet another way in which they erase my identity. “You’ve chosen a difficult path” is another classic, and often used to justify not bothering to understand me better or support me. Another ol’ chestnut is being told to not tell people I’m in a relationship with a man, “it might cause gossip” was one justification recently given. I was also told not to tell a 5-year-old that my then-boyfriend was my boyfriend (even though years later I found out the 5-year-old had worked it out). “I don’t have a problem that you’re gay” is another, as if me saying to a female friend that “I don’t have a problem that you’re a woman” is somehow acceptable (it isn’t). “You’re just Robert to me,” sounds supportive but, again, erases my identity and lets the speaker off the hook of actually having to learn anything about it or offer me support. “Being gay should just be normal” is one that sounds nice but often means, “I wish gay people would be less openly gay and talk about it less.” Other experiences include being told my non-binary identity is as valid as Father Christmas and that the non-binary identity is a last case resort for the vulnerable. I was even accused of “experimenting” on a child by giving them a birthday card with a fairy on. Hearing these sorts of things has been such a regular experience of mine that I’ve grown a particular form of thick skin to deal with it. A thick skin designed to protect me from the ignorance and prejudice of others.
But no skin is thick enough to protect my soul and for over thirty years I have endured these demeaning, abusive and invalidating comments. My soul has suffered the consequences and each comment has been a drop of acid rain. What’s more, the very act of putting up with it has been so normalised in my life that I consider it normal. Of course this person will say ignorant things, of course I can’t expect love and support for my queerness, of course they “don’t mean it”, of course it “doesn’t come from a bad place” etc. Straight and cis people have gone out of their way to emotionally abuse me and then justify their emotional abuse. While their efforts at conversion failed on the fundamental level of changing me – I’m queerer than I’ve ever been; they succeeded in brainwashing me into thinking that I didn’t deserve better – that I am actually worthy of love and respect for my queer and non-binary identities, not in spite of them. All along my abuse was normalised and my needs fundamentally neglected. But there’s nothing normal about abuse or neglect. Yet it is interwoven into the way so many cisgendered and heterosexual people treat queer people. To date, I have survived these constant experiences of conversion therapy and whatever people do or don’t say, I will not change.