LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn shocked the United States.
In December 2014, the 17-year-old walked into oncoming traffic just outside the small city of Lebanon, Ohio, leaving behind a blog in which she described how Christian conversion therapists had told her that being transgender was “wrong”.
Within months, an online petition calling for conversion therapy to be outlawed had gathered more than 120,000 signatures.
Six months later, then President Barack Obama called for a ban on the controversial practice, which claims to help gay people become straight and transgender people revert to the gender they were born.
Legislative change is gathering speed around the world with New Zealand, Australia and Britain all considering laws against conversion therapy. Yet it remains in use in the vast majority of countries.
“The practice of conversion therapy remains quite widespread,” Laura Russell, head of policy at British LGBT rights group Stonewall, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“[The] pattern was fairly consistent across age groups, which suggests these practices are still ongoing and not an issue that only affected older generations.”
In Britain, 2 percent of 108,000 LGBT respondents to a recent government survey said they had undergone conversion therapy. A further 5 percent reported having been asked if they would undergo a course.
For transgender people, the figure is even higher: 13 percent reported having either undergone the treatment or been offered it.
Conversion therapy has a chequered history, with the influence of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud casting a long shadow.
At its core was a desire to root out the cause of sexual orientation and then through various means, including hypnosis and electric shock treatment, steer the patient toward heterosexuality.
Medical opinion was slow to change. But in 2001, a report from U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher stated “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed”.
This March, the European parliament denounced the practice and called on EU member states to implement bans. It is already outlawed in Malta and Ecuador, but an 18-year-old ban in Brazil was overturned last year.
In Britain, the majority of medical opinion is against conversion therapy.
“We clearly feel that the treatment we offer should be evidence-based,” said Dr Louise Theodosiou, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
“And there isn’t any evidence to support gay conversion therapy being a positive thing.”
In July this year, the British government said it would move to outlaw the practice.
Announcing the ban, Britain’s equalities minister, Penny Mordaunt, said she was concerned that so many LGBT people were still being offered such an “abhorrent practice”.
Yet despite the groundswell of public and medical opinion toward a ban, the topic remains contentious.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation contacted several organizations in the United States that offer the course, but all declined to comment.
One practitioner said conversion therapy was “a made-up term coined by LGBT activists to demean professional therapists who use professional, licensed therapy for clients whose homosexual feelings have arisen by emotional and/or sexual abuse.
“It’s not for people who believe they were born gay,” he added.
The issue taps into wider themes of freedom of expression and, where the courses are operated by religious groups, the right to freely exercise one’s religion.
In May last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against challenges on these two grounds to California’s ban on conversion therapy for those under 18.
California outlawed the practice in 2012 and similar restrictions are now in place in Vermont, New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.
However, Lucas Ramon Mendos, author of the 2017 State-Sponsored Homophobia report from international LGBT rights group ILGA, said country bans were rare.
“(Conversion therapy centers) are just internment camps for young kids and teenagers to ‘straighten up’, so to speak, and to be rectified in their orientation,” he said.
“We would have thought this is something from the past, but it is still happening as we speak.”
Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org