A leading British author has condemned Amazon for selling books that promote gay “cures”. Damian Barr, the celebrated memoirist, told BuzzFeed News that the online bookseller is promoting hatred, abuse, and self-harm by featuring guides for the “treatment” of homosexuality. His account in Maggie and Me of abuse while growing up gay in Scotland in the 1980s earned him awards and international acclaim.
There are numerous examples of such books on Amazon that advocate so-called reparative therapy, including A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Healing Homosexuality, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality, and How a Gay Boy Became a Straight Man.
It was spotting the first of these by Joseph Nicolosi, one of the former leaders of the gay “cure” movement, on the site that prompted Barr to speak publicly about the issue.
“Amazon has a responsibility to their customers to not profit from or promote self-harm and hate crimes,” said Barr. “If you read the comments below you can clearly see the book had caused harm to parents as well as children. Amazon is profiting from the pain of the people affected by this book.”
One such reader, in the dozens of comments criticising this book, said, “Amazon would do well to remove this negative and aggressive type of publication from its platform.” Another wrote, "Amazon should be ashamed of selling such garbage” and added: “The only reparative therapy gay children and people need is for the damage that the heterosexual societal machine has wrought upon them.”
The practice and ideology of reparative therapy emerged in the 1970s, following so-called aversion therapy, which used electric shocks, hormone pills, and medication to induce vomiting in an attempt to turn gay people straight.
Reparative — also called conversion — therapy, meanwhile, tends not to use physical pain inflicted on its subjects but instead seeks to instil the belief that homosexuality is a pathology resulting from early childhood trauma — a deviation that can, with willpower, practice and “repair” and lead to heterosexuality. The evidence is clear, however: It does not.
Every mental health organisation in Britain and the USA condemns such practises as dangerous, harmful, and ineffective. Several studies and multitudinous personal testimony has exposed reparative therapy as leading to worsened mental health, including self-harm, depression, and suicide. Last year, the British government promised to ban the practice.
But Barr is not advocating that this book, or any such book, should be banned — but instead that the world’s biggest bookseller should not bring it into the homes of its customers.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue,” he said. “It’s about people’s freedom to live unmolested and safe, and this book is not doing that. It is advancing outdated, scientifically and psychologically disproven and discredited theories of human sexuality that aren’t just tired, they are harmful. Amazon is not being neutral by selling these. Amazon is making a statement about their values by choosing to sell these books.
“People can buy this book if they want,” he said, “but you have to ask yourself, ‘Why would you choose to profit from this book?’ Amazon are making money from this hatred. If a publisher wants to publish it and people want to buy it then it’s up to us to advance the arguments against this and to disprove the theories contained therein, but does Amazon have to sell this book? Amazon makes choices all the time about what it does and doesn’t sell and it is making a choice about this. If I owned an independent bookshop, would I put this in the shop window? What does it say about the values of the person who chooses to sell that?”
Barr’s remarks come just days after Instagram pledged to remove images of self-harm from its platform, and it is through this prism of both the abuse of others and self with which he criticised Amazon for exposing vulnerable people to it.
“They are advocating self-hatred, they are advocating child abuse, because they are encouraging parents to do this to their children,” he said. “And I have been that gay child who did not get the support when they needed it. And I think because the world is so fractious right now this is especially important. We’re seeing renewed attacks on LGBT people all around the world.”
There is also no equivalency between selling books that see being gay as an illness and other books that celebrate LGBT people, said Barr. “Homosexuality is not the flip side of homophobia; homophobia is a learned behaviour: It is a choice and homosexuality is not.”
In his forthcoming novel, You Will Be Safe Here, Barr writes about a teenage boy in South Africa in 2010, whose parents send him to a camp that brutalises and abuses — to make a “man” of him. Such a depiction of attempts to beat the gayness out of someone dovetails with a recent Hollywood film, Boy Erased, dramatizing the memoir of Garrard Conley, who was sent to a conversion therapy camp in 2004 aged 19 — the techniques of which were derived from conversion therapy. The experience traumatised Conley, who is now out about being gay.
But both physical and mental attempts to “cure” are on the same continuum and inflict untold harm, said Barr — and learning how to do this from a manual such as A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality is despicable.
“The camps that I’ve written about in my novel and the abuse — this happens all around the world, and we’re rightly horrified by that. But what this book is saying is, ‘Do it at home, do it behind closed doors, do it to children of school age, do it to your own children.’ To me it is as shocking as seeing a book called How to Abuse Your Children. That to me is what this is. It’s that serious.’”
To continue selling and profiting from such titles, said Barr — who also runs Britain's premier literary salon — should encourage the retailer to ask, “What message am I sending to my customers, and to other writers, customers, and to their employees?”
Last year, reports emerged that LGBT employees at Amazon expressed alarm and concern when posters put up in the company’s headquarters that celebrated Pride were defaced by fellow employees — and rather than using the incidents to state the company’s support for LGBT people, instead Amazon condemned the acts only for physical damage: “Posters are company property. Defacing posters is a violation of Amazon’s policy.”
One such defacement included crossing the “T” out of LGBT — an anti-trans protest. And one employee was quoted in reports saying that LGBT employees’ safety in the workplace was “not guaranteed”. Amazon responded by saying it is “committed to equal rights, tolerance and diversity.”
Amazon declined to comment for this story.
Patrick Strudwick is a LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Strudwick at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.