“Homosexuality is not a disease. That’s why the term therapy is misleading. We want to ban so-called conversion therapies as far as possible. Wherever they are carried out, they often cause serious physical suffering and emotional distress. These so-called therapies make people sick, not healthy. The ban sends out an important signal to society, to all those who struggle with their homosexuality: It’s okay to be the way you are.”1
On May 7, 2020, the German Federal Ministry of Health declared a nationwide ban on so-called conversion therapies. Conversion therapies, sometimes also called reparative therapies, are religiously motivated practices that claim to help individuals with homosexual desires to turn around their sexual orientation, and transgender people to live in accordance to their biological sex. They are usually created and maintained by Christian Evangelical and conservative organisations such as Exodus Global Alliance in the United States or Wuestenstrom in Germany. Advocates of conversion therapy see it as a necessary step for growth as Christians to change their sexuality; in their mindset living with a “false” sexuality is considered destructive to one’s own spiritual growth.
Himself an openly gay politician, Spahn’s statement provides a clear insight into to motifs behind the law: From the perspective of jurisdiction, sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to a person’s “being,” and that being mustn’t be changed forcefully. His words are convincing when he speaks about the psychological consequences and mental issues caused by such treatments – the pain reported by many former participants of conversion therapy and scientific studies about the ineffectiveness of the treatments are witness to this.2 A formerly “converted” leader from Exodus later renounced the truth of conversion therapy, and apologised to the LGBTQAI* community.3 Yet, will such a ban, this kind of “act of protection”, be able to actually save the ones affected by the struggle of being both: religious and queer?
It goes without saying that in recent times, many LGBTQAI*-positive churches have appeared and actively promoted same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, there still is a fair number of Christian communities that hold anti-queer sentiments; the biggest one being the Catholic church itself. Of these only a few communities and small organisations, especially stemming from the radical corners of Evangelicalism, have a history of actively promoting conversion therapies in the name of God. The idea behind it is as simple as it is brutal: Individuals that experience a “distorted” sexual desire (same-sex/homosexual) or are uncomfortable with their biological sex and gender identity, are invited – however, often pressured by their parents or congregations – to “convert” back to the “normal”, to be “repaired” from such devilish and harmful threats. It is about overcoming the bodily needs and being filled by “Jesus’ love” instead.4
Studies suggest various reasons for seeking conversion therapy. Particularly individuals that are involved in religious activities show a tendency of internalised homonegativity, an embodied negative attitude towards homosexual desires, because they aim to live according to their religious ideals, whereas their sexuality excludes them from their own ideals. The stigma religious groups uphold against homosexual behaviour and the LGBTQAI* community can animate religious individuals with a homosexual orientation (and gender dysphoria) to seek conversion therapy in order not to “fall from grace” or sin.5
The problem with this is the fact that for some people, religious and sexual/gender identity do not seem to go well together. Psychologists Rodriguez and Ouellette extracted a four-layered model about this identity conflict when they studied gay Christians in the United States: 1. Rejecting the religious identity, 2. Rejecting the homosexual identity, 3. Compartmentalisation (compromise between both identities by living them out separately from each other), and 4. Integration of both identities.6 People seeking conversion therapy may be classified as rejecting their queer identity as a result of religious oppression or devotion.
If you look for it, you will find websites and material advertising not only the right sexual orientation and gender identity for you, but also ways, methods, and religious rituals to become either more religious and less queer, or less religious and more queer, or both: religious and queer. A nationwide law, or state laws in the United States e.g., will definitely hinder the instalment of conversion therapy. Still, the religious motivation of anti-queer churches will remain a mental threat to some individuals. For these, reconciliation between desires deemed as sinful by some influential theologians and the wish for participation in their religious community cannot simply be ruled over.
Religious beliefs and jurisdiction collide once again in this issue. The ongoing diversification of familial issues and religious plurality in Germany has been challenging the German state to reconsider its jurisdiction to fit contemporary notions of family, sexuality and gender. Thus, the protection law against conversion therapy may be considered an example of how religious impact in societal issues is reduced as a next step of Germany’s own long way to becoming a liberal modern state based on a juridical system independent of theological or religious influence.
- Spahn is quoted by the German Federal Ministry of Health, “Act to Protect against Conversion Treatments” https://www.bundesgesundheitsministerium.de/en/press/2020/conversion-treatments.html (last accessed June 3, 2020).
- See Jeffrey A. Paul: “The Varieties of Religious Responses to Homosexuality: A Content and Tonal Analysis of Articles in Pastoral Psychology from 1950 to 2015 Regarding Sexual Minorities”, Pastoral Psychology 66 (2017), p. 79–101, here: 95.
- See BeyondExGay: “Statement of Apology from Former Exodus Leaders Darlene Bogle, Michael Bussee, and Jeremy Marks”, https://beyondexgay.com/article/apology (last access: June, 4 2018). The apologies were not well received by the queer community and he faced criticism.
- See for statements e.g.: Desiring God — Nick Roen: “Is It Sin to Experience Same-Sex Attraction?”, December 17, 2013, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/is-it-sin-to-experience-same-sex-attraction (last accessed: May 31, 2020); SSA Hope: “Education: Origins of Same Sex Attraction”, https://www.ssahope.com/same_sex_attraction_education.html (last accessed: June 1, 2020).
- See Jeffrey Hayes & Erinn Tozer: “Why Do Individuals Seek Conversion Therapy? The Role of Religiosity, Internalised Homonegativity, and Identity Development”, The Counselling Psychologist 32/5 (2004), p. 716–740, here: p. 716.
- See Suzanne Ouellette & Eric Rodriguez: “Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay-Positive Church”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39/3 (2000), pp. 333-347, here: p. 334-335.