France sees rise in conversion therapies to ‘cure’ 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.

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."

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