The global implications of RNC support for gay “conversion therapy”

Assistant professor of sociology at Temple University

Last week, police in Uganda raided an LGBT pride event. Witnesses described police brutality, especially toward transgender women. Among those arrested were Pepe Julian Onziema and Frank Mugisha, leaders of Sexual Minorities Uganda. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which passed there in 2014, has since been overturned by Uganda’s constitutional court—but clearly the anti-LGBT sentiments behind it persist. In its initial form, this bill provided the death penalty for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” but when passed, this punishment became life in prison.

As I argue in The Straight Line, sexual reorientation therapy research and ideology imported from the United States were used in advocacy for this bill. Part of this ideology is to conflate homosexuality with transgender expressions as an overall pathological inability or unwillingness to conform to demands of one’s assigned birth gender, including heterosexual expression. A document from the National Association of Social Workers of Uganda (NASWU) was entered into the official record of the Ugandan Parliament and drew on these ideas, citing reorientation research studies from the US-based organization NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). While most reorientation practices in the U.S are talk therapies promoting conformity to rigid gender stereotypes, the implicit pathologization of homosexuality can be used to bolster legal punishment. Such laws can gain support especially when “homosexuality” is seen to include a propensity to prey on vulnerable populations like children, often involving the treatment of LGBT people as scapegoats for a range of social ills.

Map of the 77 countries with laws against sexual relations
between people of the same sex.

Uganda is one setting among many around the world where reorientation concepts have traveled and where homosexuality and pro-LGBT advocacy have been further criminalized. It is imperative to consider this broader context when discussing the official 2016 Republican National Convention platform: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children” (page 37). While this language may seem innocuous on the surface, it is based on explicit support for conversion therapy, despite that there are legal precedents for preventing parents from forcing potentially harmful treatments on kids under their charge. Position statements by all mainstream mental health organizations in the United States have declared that there is no evidence for the efficacy of reorientation treatments. These organizations include the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association for Social Workers, American Counseling Association, American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, in addition to global institutions such as the Pan American Health Organization regional office of the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Social Workers. And last year, a New Jersey court ruled that reorientation therapists violated that state’s consumer fraud protections.

Back in 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stated that his decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Act hinged on whether a panel of Ugandan scientists could determine if homosexuality was genetic in origin, or whether it could be changed. At a mass celebration in Kololo Stadium in Kampala following the creation of the new law, Museveni drew on this panel’s findings and declared that homosexuality is a “learned behavior that can be unlearned.” Support for conversion therapy within the RNC’s platform (not to mention other anti-LGBT positions there such as opposition to transgender restroom rights) is a very profound signal around the world to leaders like Museveni. It effectively lends ideological support for further legal punishments for homosexuality and gender variance in other nations, as well as forms of violence perpetuated in the United States that disproportionately affect queer people of color.

Countering this ideology, one popular response to conversion therapies for gays has been to argue that homosexuality is not a choice because people are born gay or straight. It is often this biological model of homosexuality, also known as “essentialism,” that underlies the notion that “gay rights are human rights”: that there is a genetically determined gay population around the world that needs to be liberated so that people can live in accordance with their inborn nature. However, this approach can only achieve so much, and the science upon which it is based is suggestive at best. Sexuality certainly has a biological component, but like language, there always has been and always will be a cultural learning component to all sexual and gender expressions.

Moreover, new research has shown that a substantial proportion of people who believe that people are born gay do not, at the same time, support gay rights—as though homosexuality were a congenital defect. Anthropological research on global sexualities has identified a broad range of ways people classify sexualities and genders, to differing degrees of importance in people’s lives; by no means is the Western gay/straight dichotomy of fixed sexual orientations and sex binaries universal. As Joseph Massad has argued, exporting this model to nations with more fluid notions of sexuality can invoke backlash against static categories that inscribe Western individualism embedded in notions of human rights. But even within the United States, the fixed gay/straight dichotomy is inadequate, as scholar Jane Ward has argues: “It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality.”

An alternative position on homosexuality is to face the issue at its core: to argue that there is nothing inherently shameful about same-sex sexualities, and that there can even be something edifying about those relationships. Rather than presume all people belong in gay/straight binary boxes on the basis of some elusive notion of biological nature, the idea “gay rights are human rights” could instead mean the right for all people to freedom of sexual and gender expression, including the right to same-sex sexualities and/or other sex sexualities, regardless of their cause. Conservatives frequently accuse gays of “recruiting” children, but forced conversion therapy of kids is obviously a means of recruiting children into a particular way of life, complete with strict gender binaries, sexual restrictions, and patriarchal norms that deny human freedom.

It is important to point out the risk of harm within conversion therapies, including the risk of suicide attempts, and to consider bans. However, working toward eliminating the cultural taboos on homosexuality and gender variance altogether may be a more effective way of countering these therapeutic attempts that increasingly move underground when banned. Regarding homosexuality, this would require acknowledging that sexual experiences of any particular type do not necessarily determine a person’s entire sexual career across the life course; it would also mean removing the taboo on heterosexuality within LGBT communities if people feel like moving in that direction. With this logic, it is the fear, loathing, and hatred of consensual sexualities and gender expressions different from one’s own that constitute, to borrow President Museveni’s phrase, “learned behavior that can be unlearned.”


Tom Waidzunas is author of The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. He is assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.

The Straight Line is a remarkably forward-thinking work of scholarship with the potential to disrupt normative academic discourses in the best possible ways. ” —Lambda Literary

Leave a Reply