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France sees rise in conversion therapies to ‘cure’ homosexuality

Universal Pictures, 2018 | ‘Boy Erased’ is based on the true history of the son of a baptist preacher who underwent a process to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality.

The film "Boy Erased" highlights controversial conversion therapies in the United States, which attempt to change homosexual children to heterosexual. This practice is surprisingly common in France.

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It was a coming-out story that turned into a nightmare. The film "Boy Erased", released March 27 in France, is based on the true story of the teenage son of a Baptist pastor from Arkansas. When he revealed his sexuality to his parents, they reacted by enrolling him in a "masculinisation" programme to "heal" him of his homosexuality. He found himself in group therapy in a detention centre where he felt he was “trapped in hell”. He did not emerge "cured".

In the United States, it is estimated that 700,000 young people have been sent to this type of rehabilitation centre. But it might come as a surprise to learn that they also exist in Europe – particularly in France.

According to Laurence Vanceunebrock-Mialon, a member of Parliament from centrist party La République en Marche (LREM), two main trends have emerged: religious circles that enrol young victims in sexual reorientation "internships", and doctors who "treat" homosexuality with anti-anxiety medication.

‘I have an appointment with an exorcist’

Véronique Lesage works on the telephone helpline of the association Le Refuge, which helps young gay people in distress. She once answered a call from a young girl. "Hello, my parents have made an appointment with an exorcist for me. I came out last week and I've been going through hell ever since. They are practicing Catholics and they think demons have entered me and that I am condemned," said the girl. Lesage had received calls like this before. She says this girl and her counterparts are young men and women whose homosexuality has caused such family devastation that so-called "healing" seems to be the only way out.

In France, these "sexual reorientations" are practiced by some Christian evangelical groups inspired by the American model and by some Muslim preachers. Young people undergo "internships" that combine prayers, readings, exorcism sessions and sometimes even complete isolation. "We had the case of a teenage Jehovah's Witness whose homosexuality had been publicly disclosed in the community. His parents had then seized his phone and his computer, and he was forbidden from interacting with the outside world," says Lesage.

"This type of exclusion is also sometimes observed in some migrant populations where young people are forced to marry and are constantly monitored.”

At STOP Homophobie, which fights against LGBT discrimination, a recent situation left its mark. "We asked for a doctor’s help for a 19-year-old. When the subject of homosexuality was raised, the doctor said that these people were potential paedophiles, vectors of AIDS and that medical treatment was needed. We were extremely shocked," says Terrence Katchadourian of STOP Homophobie.

A very active phenomenon in France

At Le Refuge, it is estimated that 3.5 percent of LGBT calls are reactions to conversion therapies. This amounts to three calls every month.

"There was a distinctive change of attitude at the time of ‘La Manif pour tous’ (a collective formed in 2012 to protest against the legalisation of same-sex marriage), it was as if homophobic speech was suddenly liberated and it caused much abuse," says Lesage. "Some churches at the time went so far as to organise prayer sessions to prevent the law from passing."

Anthony Favier, president of the Christian LGBT association David & Jonathan, agrees. He says that the phenomenon has grown with the explosion of the evangelical movement in France in recent years. "It is a modern movement in form but very conservative in substance,” says Favier. “And there is no interpretation of religious texts.”

Favier points to the rapid development of French religious movements such as Torrents de vie and Courage, which offer controversial "courses" on sexual reorientation. Favier also highlights the increased publication of religious books on gender issues, often critical of homosexuality.

In terms of Islam, the trend is less pronounced, according to Ludovic Mohamed Zahed, a doctor and imam who specialises in LGBT issues. "Homosexuality remains a very taboo subject in many families and so imams avoid confronting it head-on. Some even go so far as to say that it does not exist among Muslims. Nevertheless, cases of conversion therapies have occured and are still happening, particularly ones involving exorcism.”

Overall, it is difficult to assess the extent of these practices because testimonies are rare. "The young people who contact us want to talk but often refuse to meet us, some are too traumatised," explains Katchadourian. "We do hear reports, but unfortunately they are usually from older people who only talk after they have experienced treatment.”

‘Healers’ who are difficult to attack

In France, unlike in the United States, conversion therapies are often practiced in complete secrecy within families, religious communities and medical practices. But some evangelical preachers are not afraid to exorcise in public and even promote their exploits on social networks.

Such is the case at the ACCR (Christian Assembly of the Risen Christ) evangelical church in Lille, where the pastor practices all types of "deliverances", in particular "delivering people from homosexuality". Contacted by FRANCE 24, the church claims that it has never been concerned about the pastor's practices. His weekend preaching sessions are open to all and have attracted congregations from across France and even abroad, as his website claims.

The example illustrates the key difficulty of combating these practices, since people who participate often appear to do so voluntarily. "There are many people who want to be ‘healed’ and do not consider themselves victims," explains Mehdi Aifa, president of the Amicale des Jeunes du Refuge (an LGBT activist association), which tracks homophobic abuse on social networks.

"We have no or very few testimonies in France of adults who have been forced to undergo this type of procedure without consent. Health professionals practice this type of therapy with the approval of the ‘patient’ and they get away with it because they don’t promote it as part of their professional practice.”

The president of SOS Homophobie, Joël Deumier, believes that the legal arsenal to confront conversion therapies already exists, but that the difficulty is proving that there is a significant problem. "The suicide rate is much higher among LGBT youth. The issue of conversion therapies is also a public health issue, especially when we know that the therapy can start very early in religious schools.”

Miviludes, the government agency responsible for monitoring sectarian groups, has done very little to address the problem. “We don’t consider the fact that religious groups offering conversion courses to be necessarily cult-like deviance. We have intervened on a handful of cases, but we still only have a very partial view of the problem," says Audrey Keysers, leader of the agency.

Legal limbo in France

French conversion therapies currently exist in a legal limbo. The practice of sexually redirecting or ‘curing’ homosexuals is legal but there have been European directives to change this.

Vanceunebrock-Mialon is trying to change the situation with the introduction of a new bill, one of whose aims would be to send a strong signal to families of gay children.

"Education is required,” says Vanceunebrock-Mialon. “It is not a question of prohibiting the support of young homosexuals who are suffering, but of clearly distinguishing cases where it is suggested that they can be ‘cured’ of their sexuality, because this is where psychological abuse occurs."

Vanceunebrock-Mialon has been working on her proposed bill for over a year. Today, she says she feels isolated from her parliamentary peers. "This subject is very sensitive and parliamentarians are afraid to provoke uproar when it comes to religious issues; there is a clear lack of political courage.”

France may be dragging its feet, but things are progressing in the rest of Europe. A year ago, the European Parliament adopted a text calling on member states to ban conversion therapies. So far, only Malta and some autonomous regions of Spain have passed laws. But several countries are actively working on the issue, including Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom, who last year launched a major governmental initiative to ban the practice.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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