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Conversion Therapy Survey Reveals Real Harm In Gay 'Cure'

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Jallen Rix, a facilitator at Beyond Ex-Gay, conducted a survey of conversion therapy survivors.
Jallen Rix, a facilitator at Beyond Ex-Gay, conducted a survey of conversion therapy survivors.

In a new survey of people who have undergone a controversial treatment seeking to change their sexual orientation, a gay man described his eight-year marriage to a woman as a "scam." Another survey respondent reported self-hatred, isolation, depression and flashbacks enduring long after the therapy was concluded. A third described an attempted exorcism.

These are just a few of the hundreds of responses from those who shared their experiences with "conversion therapy," or the gay "cure," in this apparently first-of-its-kind survey. Released Thursday, the survey was conducted by Jallen Rix, an author and facilitator at Beyond Ex-Gay, a support group for people who have endured the treatment.

Although efforts have been made for decades to change the sexual orientation of gay men and women, the practice has been under increased scrutiny in recent years, as the majority of mainstream professional mental health associations have spoken out against it, and lawmakers have sought to ban it. In California, the first and so far only state to prohibit licensed therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation of minors, that legislation is now being challenged in two lawsuits that argue the ban is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech and parental rights. Rix -- who spent eight months in college attending meetings of a so-called ex-gay group and trying to become straight -- hopes that the survey will insert what he and his colleagues at Beyond Ex-Gay say is a largely absent voice in the debate: patients who have suffered from the therapy.

"Without the voices of ex-gay survivors telling what really happens in these environments, hyper-religious ministries and therapists like this get away with saying that they're healing people and changing people -- and, in fact, they are not," Rix told The Huffington Post.

To fill this void, Beyond Ex-Gay spread word of the survey through its network of former patients beginning in the fall of 2011. More than 400 people responded to a questionnaire asking them to describe how they tried to change their sexual orientation, whether it worked, how much it cost, whether it harmed or helped them, and a variety of other details.

Rix acknowledges that the survey results are not scientific and do not provide a definitive statement on the costs or benefits of efforts to change sexual orientation. Additionally, the responses do not distinguish between therapy performed by licensed therapists and counseling provided through ministries.

Despite these flaws, he said, some broad trends that emerged in the responses are worth considering. Nearly all of the respondents were affiliated with a Christian denomination during the time they were trying to change, and many said they started treatment to "gain approval from God."

"If anything, the research shows that no one changed, and in fact it created great harm and great devastation in many lives, especially in the lives of those people who responded," Rix said.

Survey respondents participated in a range of activities to try to alter their sexual orientation, from one-on-one counseling -- including reparative therapy, a kind of psychotherapy that holds that homosexuality is caused by childhood trauma such as an overbearing mother/distant father or child molestation -- to more out-there approaches like exorcism, aversion therapy and touch therapy, a method of "curing" gayness through same-sex cuddling.

Although proponents of efforts to change sexual orientation argue that at least some of these options should be available for anyone who might seek them, including minors, the voices in the survey -- self-selected as they might be -- offer a raw and bitter portrait of how trying to become straight can sometimes ruin the lives of those who attempt it.

More than three-quarters of respondents said they quit "the ex-gay movement" because it didn't make them straight. Twenty percent said they quit because of a nervous breakdown.

"I saw that NOBODY was being changed, and some of those other guys had a lot more faith than I did," one individual wrote. "The only ones I ever met who claimed to have been changed were the leadership. And one of them was always hitting on me."

"I tried to kill myself and ended up on the psych ward," another wrote.

More than 90 percent of respondents said they felt they were harmed in some way by the experience, and more than 80 percent said the harm endured to this day.

"I had to re-construct my whole identity with precious little support. For years I felt like walking swiss cheese, like I had left my guts on the road," one person wrote after a prompt to describe the type of harm the experience caused. Others reported shame, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, or difficulty in developing intimate relationships of any kind.

In a question asking what good, if any, came out of the ex-gay experience, nearly 50 respondents replied, "None." Others said it helped them come out of the closet fully, feel less alone, leave religion or meet a same-sex partner.

"I suppose that I needed to see for myself that changing my sexual orientation was not possible, nor was it necessary," one wrote.

Many respondents gave long descriptions of a difficult road to recovery after abandoning their efforts to become straight. Some found more "accepting" churches or therapists. Others became activists, concentrating on helping people who have gone through similar experiences. Many said that they still don't consider themselves to be recovered.

"Years and years and years of therapy, on and off, to deal with the PTSD-esque nature of the anger that I still feel, decades after having come out," one person wrote. "The financial cost of ex-gay ministry is not what I paid during the experience (which was nothing), but the thousands of dollars I have spent for therapy to get over the experience."

Read the full survey and results here.

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