U.N. calls for global end to conversion therapy, says it 'may amount to torture'

The practice, which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is currently banned in just five countries.
With the U.N. headquarters in the background, visitors take photos at the FDR Four Freedoms State Park's monumental stair, transformed into a giant, rainbow-hued LGBTQ flag in celebration of World Pride on June 17, 2019, on Roosevelt Island, N.Y.
With the U.N. headquarters in the background, visitors take photos at the FDR Four Freedoms State Park's monumental stair, transformed into a giant, rainbow-hued LGBTQ flag in celebration of World Pride on June 17, 2019, on Roosevelt Island, N.Y.Bebeto Matthews / AP
By Tim Fitzsimons

The United Nations released a report documenting the global reach and impact of gay and transgender “conversion therapy,” calling for nations around the world to work to ban the scientifically discredited practice.

Conversion therapy practices, the U.N. document states, are “interventions of a wide ranging nature” that are “aimed at effecting a change from nonheterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.”

Minors are often subjected to this practice, the U.N. found, in part because they lack the legal right to control their health care decisions and “as a result of the desire of parents or guardians to have them conform to expectations, either their or their communities, regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The report, released in May, was written by the U.N.'s Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz. Established in 2016, the office’s mandate is to investigate discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people around the world and produce two annual reports, to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

The office has “faced a lot of pushback from a number of states,” said Sahar Moazami, a U.N. program officer at OutRight Action International. “It’s been ‘controversial,’ as they say at the U.N.”

Before the report's publication, Mozami said the U.N. hadn’t “really spoken about conversion therapy,” describing the potential impact of the report as “huge.”

“We take it for granted that we can speak about these things openly, or even to have the language to express that ‘I experienced conversion therapy,’” Mozami said. She said the compilation of a report of the many forms of conversion therapy inflicted upon LGBTQ people around the globe “provided an outlet for individuals to provide their experiences.”

The report makes plain that conversion therapy is a risk to LGBTQ lives around the globe.

“No country can say we are the best at this,” Moazami said. “In all countries, we are facing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The report noted that a recent global estimate found that half of conversion therapy survivors underwent the practice as children, and 80 percent were 24 or younger. Conversion therapy practices, Madrigal-Borloz found, vary around the world.

For instance, in Mozambique, lesbians are subjected to exorcisms and so-called corrective rape; in Ghana, a consortium of Muslim and Christian groups practice conversion therapy in a teaching hospital; in Vietnam, LGBTQ people are sent to traditional healers; in Iran, gay people are sometimes encouraged to medically transition genders; and in the United States, LGBTQ people are reportedly still subjected to aversion therapy, which can involve “injecting nausea-inducing or paralysis-inducing drugs while exposing the subject to erotic material on a large screen.”

The U.N. says that all conversion therapy efforts are “premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.”

Madrigal-Borloz wrote that he was “struck by the resilience of those persons who he has met with and by the extent to which their lives were marked by those practices.” The report found that conversion therapy is practiced in at least 68 countries, while estimates suggest it is practiced in every country. Survey respondents, referring to their home regions, rated conversion therapy as “very common” in Africa, and “somewhat common” in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The attempts to pathologize and erase the identity of individuals, negate their existence as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse and provoke self-loathing have profound consequences on their physical and psychological integrity and well-being,” the report stated, with 9 in 10 conversion therapy survivors from 100 countries saying in one survey that they suffered damage from having undergone the practice.

The report also found that conversion therapy is often expensive, supported by advertising, and is, “in many cases, a lucrative business for providers around the world,” with American providers charging as much as $26,000 for a single dose of “conversion therapy.”

The report, which was delayed slightly due to travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 29, just after New York City’s annual Pride weekend, which this year will mainly be celebrated virtually.

"There is broad consensus among the medical community, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, that conversion therapy for gender identity or sexual orientation is dangerous and should be banned,” said Jack Turban, an LGBTQ youth mental health researcher at Harvard Medical School.

In November, the American Medical Association backed a ban on conversion therapy, saying that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity have “no foundation as scientifically valid medical care” and said that the group would work to draft legislative bans of the practice.

Sam Brinton, head of advocacy at the Trevor Project and leader of its 50 Bills, 50 States effort to ban conversion therapy across the U.S., said the effort has so far been a success: “Twenty down, 30 to go,” Brinton said of states across the U.S. that have so far banned conversion therapy.

Brinton, who prefers they/them pronouns and is a survivor of conversion therapy — a practice that an estimated 700,000 adults across the U.S. have been subjected to — said they were “glad” that the report used the word “torture” to describe conversion therapy.

“I know it’s not necessarily the right legal term,” Brinton said, noting that the practices vary widely from talk therapy to physically harmful or disciplinary. “You will never have a single form of conversion therapy, because there is no best practice of a bad practice.”

But, Brinton said, “the physical violence is not a limitation on the harm,” noting that many conversion therapy practices are linked to suicide and self-harm. “That is unethical, and by many accounts would be considered torturous.”

According to OutRight Action International, just five countries totally ban conversion therapy: Malta, Brazil, Ecuador, Taiwan and most recently Germany. An effort to pass a ban in Canada is underway. There are partial or regional bans in the Netherlands, Spain, Cyprus, Switzerland, Norway, Argentina, Uruguay, Canada and South Africa.

CORRECTION (June 15, 10:00 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people who have undergone conversion therapy in the United States. It is 700,000 LGBTQ adults overall, and 200,000 transgender people specifically, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law — not 200,000 people total.

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