It’s a sad story, but one that grows gloomier when you consider that Rodgers is one of the lucky ones. Countless LGBT youths have been subjected to much worse, not just in Christian ministries, but also at the hands of licensed counselors who perform what is known as “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial mental health practices, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, are ineffective and often drive participants to depression, anxiety, drug use, or suicide.
In recent years, however, conversion therapy has been much maligned if not completely discredited. Almost all major medical and public welfare organizations oppose it, and even conservative Christians—once counted among its strongest supporters—are changing their minds. New Jersey, California, and Washington, D.C., have already outlawed ex-gay therapy for minors. By all accounts, therapies attempting to cure gayness appear to be going the way of the buggy whip.
But this hasn’t always been so. According to Kenneth Lewes, in his book, Psychoanalysis and Male Homosexuality, some began to view same-sex erotic behavior less as sin than as a mental-health disorder as early as the 19th century. This was true of other “sinful” behaviors as well—for example, drunkenness morphed into alcoholism and demon possession became schizophrenia or a personality disorder.
The shift was spurred on by the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, even though the iconic neurologist was pessimistic about either the possibility or desirability of changing homosexual orientation to heterosexual. Freud’s belief that human beings are born bisexual and can move along a continuum of sexuality formed the basis of the belief that homosexuals could be “cured.”
This way of thinking about sexual orientation persisted into the mid-20th century as many Americans fantasized about an idyllic “traditional family” in the Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver molds. By the start of the American cultural revolution in the 1960s, many mental-health professionals, clergy, and politicians supported the idea that homosexuality was a mental-health disorder that could be cured through some combination of prayer and “therapy,” which included electroshock therapy, masturbatory reconditioning, and giving patients nausea-inducing drugs while forcing them to view homosexual erotica.
“One reason why homosexuals are so rarely cured is that they rarely try treatment,” proclaimed a 1965 Time magazine article. “Too many of them actually believe that they are happy and satisfied the way they are.”
But the late 60s and 70s brought on a blitzkrieg of social change. Women’s liberationists energized the feminist movement, the conflict in Vietnam provoked an anti-war movement, a growing awareness of ecological degradation brought on the environmental movement, and an increasingly mobilized LGBT community morphed into a powerful gay-rights movement.