What is gay conversion therapy?
The term "conversion therapy" can refer to any type of effort to change or mitigate someone's sexual orientation and is typically referred to in contemporary literature as SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts.)
From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, "homosexuality" was classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a disorder. In this context, gay conversion therapy was a subject of research in various universities and hospitals in the US and UK that intended to find ways to treat or "cure" homosexuality through various therapeutic techniques, including aversion therapy, hormonal therapy, and psychotherapeutic methods such as reparative therapy.
What's the therapy where they use electroshocks?
Electroshocks were sometimes used in aversion therapy which was developed from the Behaviorist movement. Aversion therapy was used to treat a variety of disorders, including alcoholism, "sexual deviance," and obsessive behaviors—typically with emetic (nausea) and electroshock methods.
Did BYU use electroshocks to try to change gay people?
Yes. Gay aversion research utilizing electroshocks was conducted at BYU in the 1970s. In 1976, BYU accepted a dissertation from a psychology graduate student named Max Ford McBride which documented his research and experimentation with gay aversion therapy using electric shocks to the volunteers' biceps.
Did other universities conduct studies like this at the time?
Yes. Harvard Medical School, the University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin, and other schools, hospitals, and laboratories conducted aversion therapy research, many of them utilizing electroshock methods.
Timeline of events related to gay conversion therapy, scientific research, and the Church
Pre-1950s: Early Behaviorism Research
The first experimental research related to gay aversion therapy utilizing electroshocks is presented at the Forty-third Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association.
1950s: Scientific approach to the "problem of homosexuality"
The Mattachine Society is formed, which is the first national gay rights organization in the US.
The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which designates homosexuality as a sexual deviance and a pathology.
The Council of the British Medical Association convenes a committee and calls for medical research on the prevention and treatment of prostitution and homosexuality because "it is inadequate for society merely to condemn the conduct of homosexuals and prostitutes."
Desmond Curran[BIO] publishes "Homosexuality: An Analysis of 100 Male Cases Seen in Private Practice" and reports that 15% of the follow-up cohort experienced a "change towards heterosexual preference," but also concluded that psychotherapy had "no apparent benefit" in terms of sexual orientation change.
The "Wolfenden Report" was published in the UK which recommended "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence" and advised research to be conducted on the efficacy of "various forms of treatment [for homosexuality]."
May 21, 1959
1960s: Additional research, the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement, and BYU policy
Sept 12, 1962
Research hospitals and universities in the United Kingdom using various methods, including electroshock treatment, report "a significant number of successes" in treating unwanted homosexuality.
The Church News reprints a digest of a speech by BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson where he said that students who have not "completely abandoned" their "[homosexual] tendency" would not be allowed to enroll or remain as students.
The board of trustees rules that "homosexual students would not be admitted or retained at BYU without approval from the General Authorities."
Stonewall riots in New York City mark the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement.
BYU Psychology Department begins unspecified electroshock aversion therapy research.
1970s: Science and the social movement collide
The Gay Liberation Front "invades" the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Francisco and makes demands, including an end to aversion therapy.
The Church publishes "Hope for Transgressors," a pamphlet instructing bishops on how to counsel members experiencing homosexuality.
Harvard publishes "Avoidance Conditioning for Homosexuality," details gay aversion research utilizing electroshock methods, and reports "homosexual response suppression was produced" in over 60% of patients.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee conducts gay aversion therapy research on a twenty-three-year-old subject utilizing a variety of methods, including electroshock methods, reporting "a marked increase in heterosexual arousal" in the subject after the 14-week treatment.
The Association for Gay Psychologists (AGP) is formed to lobby the American Psychological Association to form a gay rights task force.
The Church publishes a comprehensive internal training document "Homosexuality Welfare Services Packet 1" on how to minister to gay and lesbian members of the Church, and outlines policies related to temple recommends, disfellowship, and excommunication.
Various accounts from students and faculty recall receiving electroshock therapy referred by the BYU counseling center.
The University of Pittsburgh conducts gay aversion therapy research utilizing various forms of therapy, including electroshock methods, and reports after a 40-week follow-up that the subject was in a "close and satisfying" heterosexual relationship.
The American Psychiatric Association votes to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder in the DSM-II and it passes 58% to 38% of the voting membership, with about half of the membership not casting votes.
The American Psychological Association votes and passes a resolution to support the 1974 American Psychiatric Association declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and "urges the enactment of civil rights legislation" to give "citizens who engage in acts of homosexuality the same protections" as others "on the basis of race, creed, color, etc."
BYU reportedly takes action against suspected homosexuals in what would be referred to as the "Purge of '75" at the Harris Fine Arts Center.
BYU graduate student Max Ford McBride[BIO] conducts gay aversion therapy research utilizing electroshock methods. His dissertation "Effect of visual stimuli in electric aversion therapy” reports his methodology to be "highly effective in changing subjective evaluation of sexual orientation."
BYU professor Carlyle Mardsen[BIO] dies by suicide after being arrested for "lewdness and sodomy stemming from alleged homosexual activity" at a public rest stop near Pleasant Grove, Utah. There are several anecdotal accounts of suicides of gay men at BYU in the 1960s and 1970s, but Mardsen is the best documented.
Various articles about homosexuality appear in the "Church News" section of the Deseret News.
Cloy Jenkins,[BIO] a gay BYU student, anonymously publishes a 52-page essay challenging BYU and Church policy relating to gay people referred to as the “Payne Papers” and sends it to Church General Authorities. The Church responded with an internal document entitled "A Reply to Unfounded Assertions Regarding Homosexuality."
The Los Angeles chapter of Affirmation: Gay Mormons United is formed and becomes the "leading chapter" of the gay support group for Latter-day Saints.
March 5, 1978
Apostle Boyd K. Packer gives a talk (later published as a pamphlet entitled "To the One") at a multi-stake fireside at BYU, specifically addressing members of the audience who were gay: "I speak to those few, those very few, who may be subject to homosexual temptation."
1980-2000: The post-pathology era
The Church publishes a booklet entitled Homosexuality for "stake presidents, bishops, mission presidents, branch presidents, quorum leaders, and others assigned to help individuals with this problem."
The American Psychological Association passes a resolution "urg[ing] its members" to reject the classification of "unwanted homosexuality" as a disorder.
Evergreen International, a gay ministry group that "sustains the doctrines and standards of the Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] without reservation or exception," is founded.
The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is founded "in response to the growing threat of scientific censorship" with the "primary goal [of making] effective psychological therapy available to all homosexual men and women who seek change."
The American Psychoanalytic Association surveys 285 therapists representing 1,215 homosexual patients and publishes a report that 23% of their patients "changed to heterosexual" through therapy.
"Ex-gay" protesters picket the Sesquicentennial Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association annual conference demanding that the APA stop opposing "reparative therapy."
The Exodus International Advisory Council is formed from various international ex-gay Christian groups that ministered to homosexuals.
"Legacies: a Documentary by Sean Weakland" is released which interviews four gay men who share their personal stories with aversion therapy, recounting trauma and abuses, some of them while at BYU.
The American Psychiatric Association adopts a policy that discourages "reparative" or "conversion" therapy, but concedes that "in the course of ongoing psychiatric treatment there may be appropriate clinical indications for attempting to change sexual behaviors."
Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) is founded, the first "Jewish-based organization specifically dealing with the healing of homosexuality" that "provides resources to those who choose to grow out of same-sex attraction."
2000-present: Competing narratives
The American Psychiatric Association expands on its 1998 statement with stronger language and questioning past research: "Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or 'repair' homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable."
The American Medical Association adopts Resolution 506, which states that "the AMA oppose the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy" and is integrated into AMA Health Policy H-160.991."
The University of Utah publishes a national survey of 882 "dissatisfied homosexual people," 45% of which made "major [heterosexual] shifts in their sexual orientation," reporting "improved psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual well-being."
May 9, 2001
Robert Spitzer,[BIO] former American Psychiatric Association chair, presents the results of a 200-person study to the annual APA conference and indicates that there is "evidence that . . . core features of sexual orientation" are able to "change." The APA responded that "APA maintains there is no published scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy as a treatment to change one’s sexual orientation."
Ariel Shidlo,[BIO] a psychologist with the Columbia Center for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Mental Health, publishes a study of 202 subjects who underwent reparative therapy and determines that only 4% were successful in shifting exclusive homosexuality to heterosexuality, and many suffered from "spiritual harm."
Dallin H. Oaks states in an interview about “same-gender attraction" that aversive therapies have contained "some serious abuses."
North Star is founded to "provide a place of community for Latter-day Saints who experience homosexual attraction."
BYU revises the text of the Honor Code to clarify that it "will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation" but maintained that "homosexual behavior or advocacy of homosexual behavior are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code."
8: The Mormon Proposition, a documentary about the Latter-day Saints and California Proposition 8, is released featuring accounts of BYU aversion therapy as well as related suicides.
Robert Spitzer disavows his 2001 study where he interviewed 200 formerly exclusive homosexuals and determined that the "core features of sexual orientation" can be changed, stating that the 200 subjects may have been "deceiving themselves" or "had been outright lying."
Researchers at Cornell University publish an analysis of a cohort of 12,287 people over 6 years and found that 34% of male and 37% of female sexual minorities reported that their sexual orientation shifted towards heterosexuality.
Exodus International, the "oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality," renounces reparative therapy, and apologizes to the LGBTQ community. Soon after, in 2013, they close operations.
Evergreen International, the Latter-day Saint gay ministry group, merges with North Star and ceases operations as an independent entity.
JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing) is sued for consumer fraud and ordered to pay restitution and close operations.
Lisa Diamond from the University of Utah publishes a meta-analysis of national and international surveys indicating that between 25% and 75% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual survey respondents report having experienced a change in their sexual orientation at some point in their lives.
In a Q&A session at the University of Virginia, Dallin H. Oaks mistakenly said that electric shock treatment "never went on under my administration.”
Did BYU have some specific religious justification for conducting gay aversion therapy research?
Possibly, but there aren't any records related to gay aversion research in the Psychology Department at BYU that indicate that Church doctrine or theology was related to the research.
Eugene Thorne,[BIO] head of the Psychology Department at BYU in the 1970s, explained that BYU engaged in the research because various medical journals were publishing "success" in gay aversion and conversion therapies and that it was "worthy of doing further research."
How exactly was the aversion therapy administered in the BYU Psychology Department research?
In the McBride study, fourteen volunteers, each of whom reported "unwanted homosexual desires," were divided into two groups of seven. Volunteers were shown images of clothed and nude males and asked to fantasize about the images. Mildly painful electric shocks, at levels set by the subject, were delivered to the biceps of the volunteers at various times during the sessions.
Is this like the electric shock that is depicted in some movies?
No. In movies like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the character played by Jack Nicholson[BIO] is given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which is different than electroshock therapy.
ECT is when electrical currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a seizure and sometimes causing violent convulsions. Electroshock therapy applies a relatively mild, but very uncomfortable shock to usually an arm or leg.
BYU did not use ECT in any gay aversion therapy research.
How long were the electroshocks applied?
In the BYU McBride study, sessions within the study applied shocks differently. During the calibration phase to find the appropriate level of milliamps for the individual, the electroshocks lasted three seconds. In the conditioning phases, the individual could completely avoid electroshocks by pressing a button or the duration of the shocks would be administered randomly for up to 8 seconds, depending on the phase of the therapy.
Were electric shocks ever applied to genitals?
No, probably not. There is no university or hospital that ever reported therapy methods that utilized electroshock to participants' genitals. The McBride dissertation and Dr. Eugene Thorne[BIO] stated that the BYU conversion therapy experiments used shocks on the biceps.
In 2011, ABC news reported that genitals were shocked during the McBride study, but John Cameron, a participant in the study, reportedly refuted this claim. It's possible that reports conflated the use of electrodes with a plethysmograph, which is a device used to measure penile arousal.
Did BYU utilize vomit-inducing aversion therapy?
Emetics (substances that cause nausea or vomiting) were used in aversion therapy at some institutions, but there are no records indicating that BYU research used emetics in their studies. Faculty involved in gay aversion research at the time of the McBride study and a BYU spokeswoman both stated this method was never used.
However, there are accounts of people receiving aversion therapy on BYU campus using emetics, but it's unclear if these were private practitioners or how they were related to BYU.
Did BYU coerce people to participate in gay conversion therapy?
Probably. The research conducted at BYU by the Psychology Department used volunteers who were seeking "treatment for homosexuality."
However, there are reports of the Honor Code Office (then called the Standards Office) giving students the option to participate in therapy with private practitioners or be expelled from BYU. Gerald Dye, the head of the Standards Office in the 1970s, reportedly stated that the type of therapy that students were required to receive was non-aversion therapy.
Wasn't this kind of conversion therapy basically torture?
For those who were coerced into unwanted aversion therapy, the treatment was reported to be painful and humiliating.
Did the Church officially approve the research in the BYU Psychology department?
No, probably not. The Church isn't involved in reviewing and/or approving dissertations at BYU. However, nearly all faculty are members of the Church, the Church makes up the BYU Board of Trustees, and BYU did approve of the research.
If the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, why did BYU approve the research?
The American Psychiatric Association ratified the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 but the American Psychological Association did not endorse this change until 1975, and still considered "unwanted homosexuality" as a disorder until 1987.
This research continued after the 1973 declassification by academic institutions such as Harvard Medical School, the University of Pittsburgh, and BYU.
What was the Church's policy about gay conversion therapy?
During the 1970s the Church published internal documents that counseled bishops to work with "homosexuals" and, consistent with scientific consensus at the time, that it was possible that they could be "cured" through therapeutic methods.
Did BYU or the Church ever ask gay Latter-day Saints to provide names of other suspected gay people?
Yes. The Church published an internal guide in 1973 that directed Church leaders to require people experiencing homosexuality to disclose their sexual partners.
There are also reports that BYU coerced students into reporting names of other gay students or they would be expelled.
Did anybody involved in conversion therapy at BYU commit suicide?
There are several reports of gay students who were involved in some form of aversion therapy committing suicide while at BYU, though documentation is limited.
Did any participants from the McBride Psychology Department experiment commit suicide?
In a 2007 speech made at an Affirmation conference, Connell O'Donovan[BIO] stated "[The BYU McBride study] started out with 16 Gay male BYU students and staff, but two committed suicide during the experiment, so the study only ended up with 14 subjects." This claim was then repeated in 2008 by QSaltLake Magazine.
However, there were seventeen participants, not sixteen, and there are no contemporary reports of suicide related to the McBride study in the documentary record.
Does conversion therapy cause people to commit suicide?
The most recent research indicates that conversion therapy, also known as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), is correlated with lower rates of suicidality. However, there is no available data on this topic from the 1960s or 1970s that specifically relates to aversion therapy.
Does Utah have a higher suicide rate for LGBTQ+ people than other states?
Read more in LGBTQ+ and Suicide
Did BYU practice gay conversion therapy in the 1980s or 1990s?
Yes, probably. There are reports of various types of conversion therapy being practiced by therapists affiliated with BYU in the 1970s through the 1990s.
Did the Church ever publish a statement on the electroshock study at BYU or issue an apology?
No. In 2011, a BYU spokeswoman made a statement about BYU aversion therapy research in response to media interest, stating, "At that time, such techniques were being studied at other universities and institutions. Studies of this type have not taken place at the university since then."
Didn't Dallin H. Oaks claim that the electroshock aversion therapy did not happen while he was President of BYU?
Yes, in a Q&A session at the University of Virginia, President Oaks said that electric shock treatment "never went on under my administration.” However, he was mistaken, as the McBride dissertation was accepted in 1976. President Oaks served as President of BYU from 1971–1980.
In general, what were the reported results from gay aversion or conversion research?
Over 100 studies were performed on nearly 1,000 patients from the 1950s through the 1970s at various institutions in the U.S. and U.K. exploring the efficacy of various types of gay conversion therapies (see below for relevant studies and results).
Aggregating results is difficult due to inconsistencies in definitions, methods, and data measured.
Sample of sexual orientation change studies and reported rates of change.
Year, Study, Publication, and Author
Department of Psychiatry, St. George's Hospital, London
1957, "Homosexuality: An Analysis of 100 Male Cases Seen in Private Practice," Desmond Curran and Denis Parr, British Medical Journal
A subset (59) of the 100 were followed up with and 15% "reported a change in the direction of heterosexuality."
Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency, London, England
1958, "Diagnosis and Treatment of Homosexual Offenders," Mary Woodward, British Journal of Delinquency
Of 64 subjects treated for homosexuality, 48 completed treatment, and 31 (65%) of those who completed treatment reported an "increase in heterosexual interest."
University of London
1960, "Some Problems in the Treatment of Homosexuality," Kurt Freund, Behavior Therapy and the Neuroses, edited by H. J. Eysenck
Of 47 subjects, 15% of the 47 had short-term "heterosexual adaptation" and 26% of the 47 lasted "several years."
Department of Psychiatry, Crumpsall Hospital, Manchester, England
1967, "Aversion Therapy in Management of 43 Homosexuals," M. J. MacCulloch, British Medical Journal
43 patients were treated over a three-year period with a one-year follow-up. 58% reported a shift in their sexual orientation towards heterosexuality as measured by the Kinsey scale.
Harvard Medical School
1974, "Group Psychotherapy For Men Who Are Homosexual," Lee Birk, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy
Of the 26 patients that participated in group therapy for the treatment of homosexuality for eighteen months, 52% reported "nearly complete heterosexual shifts."
American Psychoanalytic Association
1994, "Attitude and Experiences of Psychoanalysts in Analyzing Homosexual Patients," Houston MacIntosh, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association
285 therapists representing 1,215 homosexual patients were surveyed and researchers indicates 23% of their patients "changing to heterosexuality" and 84% receiving "significant therapeutic benefit."
NARTH, University of Utah
2000, "Retrospective Self-Reports of Changes in Homosexual Orientation: A Consumer Survey of Conversion Therapy Clients," Joseph Nicolosi, Psychological Reports
Of the 882 subjects* surveyed, 89% of those that had been "exclusively" or "almost entirely homosexual" or "more homosexual" than not, reported that after therapy, only 35% continued to view themselves as homosexual.
Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York
2002, "Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers’ Report," Ariel Shidlo, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice
Of 202 subjects* surveyed who had some form of "sexual orientation conversion intervention," the study found that only 4% experienced a shift in their sexual orientation.
Columbia University, New York
2003, "Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation? 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation," Robert Spitzer, Archives of Sexual Behavior
Of 200 subjects* surveyed who reported having changed their orientation at least five years prior, 29% of the males and 67% of the females reported homosexual feelings only "a few times a year".
In 2013 Spitzer apologized to the "gay community" for the study and said that it's possible that the 200 subjects may have been "lying".
* Note that this reported rate of change was based on a self-selected group (eg. subjects that tended to identify as former homosexuals, or subjects that rejected conversion therapy) rather than a random sampling.
Can sexual orientation be changed?
Both researchers and LGBT groups acknowledge that "sexual fluidity" (a change in sexual orientation) occurs in a significant number of sexual minorities. However, the mechanism for this change, and whether or not conversion therapy is a valid way to facilitate this change, is a subject of debate.
What is the current consensus of the medical community on gay conversion therapy?
Major medical associations such as the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association condemn gay conversion therapy as not having "adequate scientific rigor," being "inherently discriminatory," and having "been shown to be harmful and potentially deadly."
However, some medical associations, such as the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice (IFTCC) and the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (Alliance) have argued that because sexual orientation does change, patients should direct their own healthcare and have the freedom to choose the therapy they want.
Research and clinical studies reported some level of “success” with gay conversion therapy–why do major medical associations condemn it?
In the past, the medical community recognized the concept of "unwanted homosexuality" and invested research into addressing this issue.
However, major medical associations now reject the concept of "unwanted homosexuality" as a valid condition. Research that challenges this premise is considered unethical and harmful.
But shouldn't a person decide for themselves if they want mental health treatment for "unwanted homosexuality"?
Some people believe that patients should direct their own mental healthcare with respect to their sexual attractions, values, and behavior, while others believe that it is unethical to administer treatment for sexual orientation, even if that is the desire of the patient.
What is the current Church policy on gay conversion therapy?
In October 2019, a Church spokesman stated that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes ‘conversion therapy’ and our therapists do not practice it.”