“The physical and mental state of homosexuals is far from normal.” Or: gay people “are not healthy.” It sounds like something an obscure Evangelical cult in America would say. But in fact those statements were published by a group of German doctors just five years ago. They can be found on the website of Germany’s Association of Catholic Physicians, or BKÄ.
Homosexuality, “a disturbance in the developmental phase,” can be treated, the Munich-based group insists. A little-known organization established by a Bavarian general practitioner a decade ago, the BKÄ offers “treatment” ranging from psychoanalysis to homeopathy, prayer or “detoxification.”
These are contentious allegations, to say the least. German doctors stopped “diagnosing” homosexuality as a mental disease after the World Health Organization dropped it from its list of illnesses in 1992.
What’s more, the World Medical Association has condemned so-called “conversion” or “reparative” methods targeting same-sex attraction. “These constitute violations of human rights and are unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to sanctions and penalties,” the WMA said in a 2013 statement. The body represents some 10 million physicians in over 100 countries.
Yet the BKÄ is not the only such organisation in Germany. A number of fringe German groups also claim there is something wrong with lesbians and gays and insist they can turn them straight. Like the BKÄ, these organizations are often affiliated with Christian fundamentalists, echoing a trend in the United States, where religious fanatics are attempting to revive discredited conversion therapies.
‘Patients’ get suicidal
Nearly two dozen US states, Canadian provinces and Latin-American countries have outlawed or restricted anything resembling a “gay cure.” It has been outlawed, at least for minors, in places like Ontario, California, Illinois, among others, while Brazil and Argentina have imposed nationwide bans.
But not in Germany, where conversion therapies are still legal. This is also true throughout most of Europe, despite a non-binding resolution against conversion therapy overwhelmingly backed by the European Parliament last year. In fact, Malta and Switzerland are the only European countries that have passed any legislation against them, in addition to a handful of Spanish regions. “The Federal Government does not support the view that homosexuality requires therapy or that it can be addressed through therapy,” was the written answer the German government gave to Green Party lawmakers when they questioned the lack of laws in 2008. But Berlin has failed to take any actual steps toward banning such measures.
It is generally accepted that attempting to change people’s sexual orientation is both cruel and harmful, in addition to being a complete waste of time and money. “Conversion therapies make people feel guilty and reject what they are,” said Kurt Seikowski, a psychologist at the University of Leipzig. As “patients” fail to get any results after years of effort, “they are at risk of depression and harbor suicidal thoughts,” Seikowski told Der Tagespiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt.
This is exactly what Bastian Melcher went through. Now an LGBT rights activist, Melcher, 29, was shunned by his Evangelical Christian community in Bremen after he came out in his teens. He attempted conversion therapy for two years with a well-known doctor in Hamburg and attended group sessions up and down the country. All in all, Melcher wasted eight years trying to change his sexual orientation. “At times it got so intense that I no longer knew what I should do, or who I was,” he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in a documentary last year. “It went so far that I started to think I might as well die.”
Mostly happening in secret
It’s close to impossible to find out how many organizations and therapists offer a “gay cure” in Germany, or how many people have gone through it. Groups such as the BKÄ or Wuestenstrom, an evangelical organization based in Baden-Württemberg, may only be the tip of the iceberg. “It’s mostly happening in secret, typically within religious communities – Muslims, Christians, or Jews,” said Hartmut Rus, a member of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, or LSVD, an advocacy group. “But there are also ‘regular’ psychotherapists who try to heal homosexuals covertly,” he told Handelsblatt Today.
Rus recalled attending a promotional event for gay conversion therapy in Saxony in 2012 with about 100 visitors from the medical sector, most of whom seemed to be well-disposed toward the idea.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, has an ambivalent relationship with right-wing Christian movements that claim to cure LGBT people of their non-existent disease.
Six years ago, Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, raised eyebrows when she wrote a letter congratulating the Gnadau community on its 125th anniversary. An Evangelical organization with some 200,000 members in Germany, Gnadau is an outspoken proponent of “healing” gays. Another CDU heavyweight, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, once endorsed a Christian festival in Bremen which promoted gay conversion seminars.
A form of torture
And last spring, German media reported that regional CDU politicians in Saxony-Anhalt, including a former president of that eastern state, supported a Protestant group that for decades had attempted to cure homosexuals. The ensuing controversy didn’t stop that group, Leo, from receiving a €15,000 subsidy last summer to renovate the 200-year-old mansion it’s based in.
However, things are changing within the CDU, albeit at a snail’s pace. The current health minister, Jens Spahn, is one of the country’s best known gay politicians – and unsurprisingly, he is against “curing” homosexuals, which falls within his remit. In a Facebook post last summer, he called conversion therapies “nonsense” and “a form of torture.”
“But banning them is easier said than done,” said Spahn, who lost a bid to succeed Merkel as CDU chair in December. He argued that a ban would require the government to monitor what’s going on during every therapy session.
And so Berlin won’t budge. In 2013, the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, quashed a bill put forward by the Greens to ban “therapies aiming to change the sexual orientation of minors” and slap any offenders with a €500 fine. And in early July, a left-wing lawmaker submitted a written request asking the government to take steps to ban conversion therapies. The written answer consisted of one word: “Nein.”
‘A law would protect victims’
But activists are not giving up. The latest push came from Germany’s smallest state last summer. In August, Bremen’s state parliament urged the regional government to lobby federal institutions into issuing a nationwide ban. The state government is currently working on an initiative to be presented in the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of Germany’s parliament, a spokeswoman told Handelsblatt. The date is unspecified as yet.
In the meantime, supporters of any ban will need to be patient. A petition has collected over 77,000 signatures. That’s hardly an impressive number by German standards. Even some LGBT activists do not support an outright ban on conversion therapies, especially for grown-ups. “Prohibition is wrong when it goes against the beliefs of free people,” said Patrick Schärer, a Christian software developer from Heidelberg who ended two years of therapy with Wuestenstrom in 2013. He doubts that a ban on conversion therapies would have an impact on the high rate of suicide among LGBT people. “There are other steps to take,” the 52-year-old told Handelsblatt.
LSVD campaigner Rus agrees that an outright ban wouldn’t solve everything. But it would make people think twice before forcing their children into “useless and potentially harmful” therapy sessions, he said. “It would also give victims legal protection and make it easier for them to take action against their tormentors.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Today in Berlin. To reach the author: [email protected]