A man shows his rainbow flag during the Gay Pride parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 30, 2006.

© 2006 Reuters

A Brazilian judge’s decision to overturn an 18-year-old ban on conversion therapy has put the spotlight on discredited sexual orientation change efforts.

The judge, Waldemar de Carvalho, overruled a 1999 decision by the Federal Council of Psychology that banned the treatment. One of the plaintiffs in the case is a psychologist whose license was revoked for offering the treatment and once described homosexuality as a “disease.”

The global public health consensus amongst professional medical associations is that conversion therapy – the attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation – is ineffective, unethical, and potentially harmful. 

The World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990, a shift from seeing homosexuality as an illness to a natural variation of human sexuality. There would likely be an uproar if a therapist tried to change a heterosexual into a homosexual, but the absurd logic is the same. “There is no way to cure what is not a disease,” says Rogério Giannini, head of Brazil’s Federal Council of Psychology.

In 2016, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), an association of national psychiatric societies across 118 countries, condemned the practice as “wholly unethical,” and the Pan American Health Organization warned in 2012 that conversion therapies “lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” 

A 2015 joint statement issued by 12 United Nations agencies, including the World Health Organization, called for an end to “unethical and harmful so-called ‘therapies’ to change sexual orientation.”

Around the world, medical associations have condemned the practice, including in India, South Africa, Lebanon, Thailand, Turkey, Philippines, and the United States, where the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association have condemned conversion therapies on scientific and ethical grounds.

The practice is also ineffective. In the US in 2015, four men and two of their parents successfully sued Jews Offering Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act for false advertising in conversion therapy ‘success’ statistics and mischaracterizing homosexuality as a mental illness. Similarly, in China, in 2014, a Beijing court sided with a young gay man who had undergone conversion therapy in a private clinic. The clinic was ordered to pay compensation for “false advertising” and “ineffective treatment.”

In attempting to cure a nonexistent disease, the psychologists at the center of the case are acting against international medical consensus that so-called “conversion therapies” are ineffectual, unethical, and potentially harmful.