The State of Conversion Therapy in 2019
50 years after Stonewall, we spotlight six warriors working to outlaw the dangerous practice
Fifty years ago, Larry Littlejohn wrote a letter to Playboy condemning a method of treatment intended to “cure” homo-sexuality. Littlejohn, who served as president of San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights, described the case of a 22-year-old patient “treated for transvestism” through aversion techniques. After showing the patient photos of himself dressed in women’s clothing, Littlejohn claimed, doctors injected the individual with apomorphine. Sometimes used to treat Parkinson’s disease, the drug also induces “headaches, nausea and vomiting.”
“It had been planned to put him through 72 ‘trials,’ ” Littlejohn wrote, “but the last four had to be abandoned because he became irritable, confused and hostile; developed rigors, high temperature and high blood pressure; suffered from impaired coordination and was unable to maintain a normal conversation.”
Although doctors had declared the patient “cured” of his condition, Littlejohn noted that another person subjected to electroshock therapy, this time as treatment to cure homosexuality, “wept for half an hour after each session.” He eventually refused further sessions after “rushing out of the room in tears.”
“I cannot see where this form of treatment differs from the tortures of the Inquisition or the brainwashing of the Communists,” Littlejohn concluded.
His letter to the editor was published in March 1969—four months before the Stonewall riots, during which activists including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought back against police brutality at gay bars in New York City’s West Village. But 50 years after the six-day protest kick-started what would become the modern LGBTQ movement, the treatment Littlejohn described remains legal in 34 states in this country. New York passed statewide legislation to ban the practice only in January.
Today such treatments are widely known as conversion therapy, though they’re sometimes referred to as “reparative therapy” or “orientation change.” The terms refer to a loosely associated range of practices including everything from shock treatment and aversion therapy to waterboarding and ice baths. In the vast majority of cases, though, conversion therapy takes the form of talk therapy wherein LGBTQ individuals meet with a counselor or pastor who teaches them that who they are is “sick” and “wrong.”
At the time of Littlejohn’s letter, homosexuality was considered a “mental illness”; since then, the American Medical Association and other organizations have evolved. In its Journal of Ethics, the AMA has condemned conversion therapy as harmful and ineffective, claiming it leads to depression, anxiety and increased risk of suicidal ideation. Despite such cautionary assessments, an estimated 700,000 people in the United States have been subjected to the practice. Without decisive action, in the coming years thousands more LGBTQ youth will join the ranks of (often traumatized) conversion-therapy survivors.
To honor the decades of advocacy against conversion therapy, Playboy partnered with the Trevor Project—a national LGBTQ youth suicide-prevention organization and architect of the “50 Bills 50 States” campaign to ban conversion therapy nationwide. The Summer 2019 issue of the magazine spotlights and celebrates six activists and survivors who are raising awareness of its impact.
Their stories, each representative of a different experience with conversion therapy and presented alongside stunning portraits by queer photographer Ryan Pfluger, are a reminder of what Franklin E. Kameny, co-founder and president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., wrote in Playboy five decades ago. (His letter to the editor ran alongside Littlejohn’s in response to April 1967 and August 1968 Playboy Forum comments made by behavioral researchers Gerald Davison and David Barlow, who believed it was possible to recondition “sexual deviation.”) Kameny, whose organization was a branch of one of the first LGBTQ advocacy groups in the U.S., declared that homosexuality didn’t need to be cured.
“Gay is good,” he said.