Gay conversion therapy has been a very hot topic of late, with two films about the subject being released this year. Boy Erased is already being tipped for Oscar nominations, despite only being released in November.

Another film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, based on Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, will also start showing in cinemas later this year, after winning the U.S. Grand Jury drama prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

What is gay conversion therapy?

Gay conversion therapy can be defined as any form of treatment or psychotherapy that aims to reduce or stop same-sex attraction or to suppress a person’s gender identity. Despite these types of therapy often having a religious side to them as well, the origins of what we today call gay conversion therapy go back to 19th century advances in psychological care.

As psychology advanced as a discipline, the belief that homosexuality was a sin or a moral corruption gave way to a different view: that homosexuality was a psychological defect that could be rectified by therapy.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud tried various methods to revert homosexuals back to heterosexual behaviour, including hypnosis and the transplantation of testicles from straight men into gay men – a practice that he believed might correct hormonal imbalances in gay men.

Most horrific of these early methods to try and “cure” homosexuality were the so-called “ice pick” lobotomies carried out by American physician Walter Freeman. This radically invasive form of brain surgery involved an ice pick being driven through the thin bone of the eye socket, leaving patients with irreversible damage to the frontal lobes of their brains, and often mute, compliant and docile. Utterly incomprehensibly, this form of treatment was used for a range of psychological ailments, and its founder won the Nobel Prize for it in 1949.

The American classification of mental disorders, the DSM, listed homosexuality as a mental disorder from 1968, when it was first published, until 1987. The World Health Organisation only removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases in 1992, leaving homosexuals at the mercy of psychologists who experimented with various methods to try and treat what was believed to be a curable illness. Some treatments involved giving gay men electrical shocks while showing them pictures of naked men, or treating them with drugs that would make them vomit. Of course, these crude experimental methods were ineffective.

As psychologists started realising that no form of psychological treatment seemed to be able to change the innate nature of their patients, the Christian right stepped in. Conservative ministries started offering “reparative” treatment to trans, bi, gay and lesbian people, claiming that the “unnatural” sexual inclinations of these groups lead to actual psychological problems, including depression, addiction, anxiety and suicide. As the AIDS pandemic started getting attention in the 1980s, these fundamental Christian groups often called the disease a plague that was a punishment for what they believed to be deviant behaviour. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in California, gained notoriety for the pseudoscientific treatments that he offered as a method to change people’s sexuality, making for a profitable career until he died in 2017.

What does the science say today?

Academic research at the turn of the millennium has largely shot down and disproven the effectiveness of masturbatory reconditioning and electroshock therapy, with the US Surgeon General, David Satcher, issuing a report in 2001, in which he stated that “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed”.

Despite this, gay conversion therapy is still offered as a way to change sexuality across the globe, with it even being sanctioned and backed by the government in Malaysia. Individual provinces, regions or states in Canada, Australia, the US and Spain do ban the practice, but gay conversion therapy is only banned outright in Brazil, Taiwan, Argentina and Malta.

Check out the trailers for Boy Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post below.