Therapists connected to US Christian groups push anti-LGBTQ practices in other countries

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Anti-LGBTQ providers are offering a disproven, harmful 'therapy' in Guatemala and Costa Rica as well as in the United States, according to a new investigation.

Christian groups in the United States have been helping to promote anti-LGBTQ "conversion therapy" outside of the country, according to an investigation published on Wednesday by openDemocracy, a U.K.-based global news outlet.

As part of the investigation, reporters who went undercover as LGBTQ people seeking mental health services from Christian groups were connected to providers offering the "therapy." "Conversion therapy" is a misnomer for a disproven practice that falsely claims LGBTQ people's sexual orientation or gender can be corrected or changed.

The groups are Focus on the Family, Exodus Global Alliance, and Courage International. Focus on the Family, an anti-LGBTQ organization that proclaims "marriage is intended by God to be a thriving, lifelong relationship between a man and a woman," is headquartered in Colorado. Courage International, which calls itself "a Roman Catholic apostolate for men and women who experience same-sex attraction and those who love them," is based in Connecticut, and advocates for abstinence from sex for gay and bisexual people. Exodus Global Alliance, which calls for "a transformed life ... for people who experience same-sex attractions and people involved in homosexual relationships," has an office in Michigan.

According to openDemocracy's undercover reporters, conversion therapy practitioners used a variety of methods to push them, as "clients," to end queer relationships, such as telling clients to fast, that their relationships were sinful and unnatural, and to isolate themselves from family.

In Costa Rica, an openDemocracy reporter reached out to the Costa Rican arm of Focus on the Family, Enfoque a la Familia, and found a psychologist who said that relationships between two women were not approved of by God.

Exodus Global Alliance's Mexico-based chapter, Exodus Latinaomérica, told an undercover reporter to get in touch with Metanoia Ministry, where he found a psychologist in Costa Rica who offered him "conversion therapy" and reportedly told him, "Nobody is born homosexual, because only a sadistic God would forbid this sin in the Bible and, at the same time, create you like that."

An undercover reporter in Guatemala City sought therapy as a lesbian and met a psychologist who volunteers with Courage International, and said she was told the only "cure" for her sexual orientation was to abstain from sex.

Costa Rica and Guatemala, like the United States, don't have nationwide bans on the practice of "conversion therapy." Costa Rica's professional association of psychologists disapproves of these practices, but the Guatemalan College of Psychologists hasn't commented publicly on the issue yet, according to openDemocracy. The United Nations released a report in May 2020 urging countries to ban "conversion therapy." It continues in at least 68 countries, according to the report.

The investigation also looked at the Christian groups' operations in the United States. OpenDemocracy reporters presenting themselves as LGBTQ people found therapists in Virginia and Colorado that provided "conversion therapy," even though the practice is banned for minors in these states, after finding referrals of more than 100 licensed therapists from Focus from the Family's U.S. list of these professionals. One openDemocracy investigator, who said she was 17 years old, was told that fasting is a "remedy" for being gay.

"When you deny yourself food and drink … you're relying totally on the sustaining power of Christ … as you're praying and doing that, you can see yourself at the Cross with him, with him up there, hanging, dying, bleeding," the therapist reportedly said. 

Another counselor, who was based in Colorado, told an undercover reporter that she should talk to God about her feelings in place of sharing them with family and other people she is close to.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws banning "conversion therapy" for minors. Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order in July directing state agencies to use their licensing and insurance reimbursement powers to stop "conversion therapy" from flourishing in the state. Virginia passed such a law in 2021 that went into effect in July. Colorado's ban was implemented in 2019.

Other research has shown how far-right Christian groups are spreading their homophobic and transphobic views through political work across the globe. A report released by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism in November found that the Alliance Defending Freedom, designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has expanded its work overseas through Alliance Defending Freedom International, partly through providing resources to anyone attacking LGBTQ rights in the courts.

The American Psychiatric Association opposes "conversion therapy." It wrote in 2013 of these practices, "The American Psychiatric Association does not believe that same-sex orientation should or needs to be changed, and efforts to do so represent a significant risk of harm by subjecting individuals to forms of treatment which have not been scientifically validated and by undermining self-esteem when sexual orientation fails to change."

A 2021 survey from the Trevor Project, an organization based in the United States focused on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth, found that youth who were LGBTQ were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide if they experienced "conversion therapy."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.