The Royal College of Psychiatrists has issued a historic statement acknowledging for the first time the harm done to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who were subjected to aversion therapy, the practice of using electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs to try to “cure” people of their sexual orientation. "We hold our hands up," it said.
Campaigners and victims have heralded the intervention, from Britain’s main body for psychiatrists, as a “milestone” moment in the history of the LGBT rights movement.
The statement, written by the president of the college, Professor Wendy Burn, was issued in response to an extensive interview BuzzFeed News conducted last month with Jeremy Gavins, who was given multiple hours of electric shocks every week for six months in the early 1970s. He told how the so-called therapy destroyed his education, career, mental health, and ability to form romantic relationships. He was one of many.
Burn expressed “profound regret” in her statement for the “lifelong impact that treatments such as 'aversion therapy' had on Jeremy Gavins and others”.
“There are no words that can repair the damage done to anyone who has ever been deemed ‘mentally unwell’ simply for loving a person of the same sex,” she wrote. “For those who were then ‘treated’ using non-evidence based procedures by mental health professionals up until as late as the 1970s, the trauma of such experiences can never be erased.”
She added that the “injustice” of such “wholly unethical” treatment to which many were subjected – in a practice that was carried out by NHS psychiatrists for more than 30 years – is “keenly felt by mental health professionals. We can’t re-write history, but what we can do is make it clear that today our doors are open and that principles of equality and diversity will be passionately upheld.”
Patients were shown homoerotic pictures while being given numerous electric shocks, or drugs that made them repeatedly vomit or defecate, often in multiple sessions over many months, in an attempt to encourage an association between pain and sexual feelings towards the same sex. One psychiatrist nurse revealed that he was instructed to leave patients in their bodily fluids. Some were left like this for days.
Proponents of the “cure” asserted that this would therefore induce attraction towards the opposite sex. It did not. At least one individual, Billy Clegg-Hill, died as a result of this procedure. But it continued to be practised even after the psychiatric profession announced in 1974 that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental disorder.
It is therefore, said Prof Burn, “important to acknowledge” that such attitudes towards gay people were “widespread” and that such “flawed”, “disproved” practices were once “procedure”. But now, decades later, she added: “We hold our hands up.”
Homosexuality, she wrote, “is not a disorder and should not be treated”.
Gavins, aged 18, was strapped in a chair by his wrists as electric currents were sent through his arm and pictures of naked men were shown on a screen. He described it as “torture” and told BuzzFeed News how it triggered a lifetime of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which required extensive further treatment from mental health professionals.
The statement from the college is a "hell of a step forward for them," Gavins told BuzzFeed News. "Especially since it comes from their president."
"I’m pleased that they’ve acknowledged [what happened]," he said. "That does help. It does mean something. It’s as near as we're going to get to an apology, it’s not far off. And it will make a difference to others [survivors of aversion therapy]. If I read that I’d think, Finally they’ve acknowledged it. We should welcome it with warm hands."
Campaigners have fought for decades for such an acknowledgement from the college, and from the profession, but none were forthcoming. This was despite the college's statements in recent years opposing conversion therapy, the successor to aversion therapy, which involves talking, rather than drugs or electric shocks, in an attempt to make gay people straight.
The most prominent and enduring of anti-aversion therapy activists is Peter Tatchell, who as early as 1972 disrupted a seminar given by leading aversion therapy advocate Professor Hans Eysenck at London’s St Thomas' hospital. Tatchell was violently removed from the lecture hall.
Twenty-four years later, in 1996, Tatchell again called on the Royal College of Psychiatrists to acknowledge the harm done to aversion therapy patients after his campaigning group Outrage! surveyed a series of psychiatric clinics and, a report noted at the time, “found that aversion therapy might still be available to lesbians and gays in 'exceptional circumstances'.” An NHS spokesperson and a Royal College of Psychiatrists spokesperson at the time both denied that the practice was still being used.
Tatchell welcomed and praised the Royal College for issuing today’s statement and called on the British government to offer compensation to victims.
"This heartfelt, historic admission that the psychiatric profession got it wrong has taken over four decades,” he said. “It is a milestone apology that was long overdue and draws a welcome line under the decades of psychiatric abuse of LGBT+ people. Nothing can undo the life-long suffering, and sometimes death, that was inflicted by these unscientific, barbaric methods but this expression of regret goes some way to heal the wounds."
Tatchell continued: “The next step must be to win compensation for the victims; for people like the family of Billy Clegg-Hill who died under aversion therapy and others like my friend John who was made impotent for the rest of his life. These abuses were mostly done by NHS doctors in the name of the public and at public expense. The government has duty to provide some recompense, in the same way that victims of botched operations are compensated."
Burn's statement in full:
"There are no words that can repair the damage done to anyone who has ever been deemed ‘mentally unwell’ simply for loving a person of the same sex. For those who were then ‘treated’ using non-evidence based procedures by mental health professionals up until as late as the 1970s, the trauma of such experiences can never be erased.
It is important to acknowledge that this was once standard procedure within mental health services, and indeed reflected a wider societal attitude of fear and hatred towards homosexuals.
It is also vital to emphasise that times have changed. Studies that once purported to have a ‘cure’ to homosexuality, or indeed to classify it as an illness in the first place, have now all been disproven and debunked. Studies which once showed conversion therapies to be successful have all been exposed as seriously methodologically flawed. In this day and age, there is no feasible scenario in which a fully trained mental health professional would administer such treatment.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists believes strongly that our first role as Doctors is to do no harm, and we firmly consider the provision of any intervention purporting to ‘treat’ something which is not a disorder, as wholly unethical. Our position statement clearly states that homosexuality is not a disorder and should not be treated.
Psychiatry is one of the most diverse medical specialities – which fully reflects the diversity of patients. For us, it is an honour and a privilege to get to know each of the individuals that walks into our workplace, and to understand their concerns, desires and ambitions; parts of them that have may not have been shared with anyone else. It is our job to offer non-judgemental advice to anyone who seeks our help, no matter their background, age, gender, sex, race or religion. Similarly, we encourage all those interested in mental health to choose psychiatry and take on what can only be described as one of the most fulfilling and rewarding careers.
The injustice of those within the LGB community who were treated as mentally unwell due to their sexual orientation alone is keenly felt by mental health professionals. We can’t re-write history, but what we can do is make it clear that today our doors are open and that principles of equality and diversity will be passionately upheld.
For anyone seeking mental health support, we are here. For anyone with a desire to choose psychiatry and support others with their mental health, we are here.
For anyone hoping to work with us to right the wrongs of the past, we are here. It is with profound regret that we hear of the lifelong impact that treatments such as ‘aversion therapy’ had on Jeremy Gavins and others.
It is with openness, kindness and humility that we hold our hands up, open our doors, and fight tirelessly to provide the ethical, evidenced-based mental health treatment that all of us deserve."