Growing up in Athens, Georgia, Jon Bozeman knew he was gay from a young age, but also knew his community would never support him. So after leaving home for college, he tried to get ahead of the problem by seeking “counseling” at Exodus International. Exodus, founded in 1973 — the same year the American Psychological Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a pathology — described itself as a “worldwide Christian organization” that worked to restore “sexual wholeness to men and women who desire to overcome their homosexuality.”
Bozeman’s counselor told him that he should do things like snap a rubber band against his skin when he thought about men in a sexual way, and also told him that his parents were to blame for his “same-sex attraction.” Bozeman finally left Exodus in 2004, after meeting another young man in conversion therapy and starting a relationship with him. Exodus itself shut down in 2013, after many of its own leaders had come out as LGBTQ.
Professional medical organizations have been denouncing conversion therapy since 1993, and a 2018 study showed that it increased suicide attempts in teens by up to fivefold. Despite this, around 700,000 U.S. adults have received conversion therapy from licensed practitioners, according to a 2018 UCLA study, which also predicted that 20,000 children will eventually receive conversion therapy in states where it hasn’t yet been banned for minors under 18 or under 21, depending on the state.
In the year since that study was published, the battle against conversion therapy has been successful on many fronts. Since then, the practice has been banned for minors in seven more states, bringing the total to 18. A further 14 states have similar legislation pending, and a federal bill has been introduced that would bar conversion therapy practitioners from receiving Medicaid funding.
Organizations like Focus on the Family rank high in Google web searches, allowing their message to reach more people.
LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign and Truth Wins Out, where Bozeman now works as a video producer, have successfully campaigned for big tech companies to remove conversion therapy apps from their stores. Yet tech companies are still inadvertently helping anti-LGBTQ groups to promote their messages. Organizations like Focus on the Family — which was connected to Exodus before it shut down — rank high in Google web searches, allowing their message to reach more people. “I see our entire fight as mainly a tech fight,” says Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out. “You have a young person coming out, their parents freak out.” Once this happens, the parents will probably go online, where they are highly likely to find these groups. “So we’re in a big tug of war right now with misinformation versus accurate information.”
In March, Google caved to pressure from groups including Truth Wins Out and the Human Rights Campaign, removing an app from its app store made by Living Hope Ministries that claimed to help people change their sexuality, but this was only after Amazon and Apple had both taken the app down in December 2018. Anti-LGBTQ groups had likely manipulated Google-owned YouTube’s algorithm in 2018 so that hateful ads would play before LGBTQ YouTubers’ content. YouTube has since addressed this problem, although the platform has more recently has come under fire for failing to ban YouTubers who repeatedly target LGBTQ people for harassment. (At the Code conference on June 10, YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki apologized to the LGBTQ community, but defended the decision not to take down such videos.)
But even now, if a parent searches Google for information about a child they suspect might be LGBTQ, it’s likely that Focus on the Family will be in their top five results. When I Googled “gay child” on June 7, 2019, two of the top three results were from Focus on the Family, including an article entitled “When a Loved One Says, ‘I’m Gay’: The Stages of Grief.” When I Googled, “I think my child is gay,” the fourth ranking result was another Focus on the Family article, “Parent Suspects That Child Might Be Gay.” This page included a link to a pamphlet, also created by Focus on the Family, that stated “Men become men by doing the ‘things that men do,’ including… engaging in physical activities, creating, working to prevail, leading, and relating to other men,” and that “… for boys who fail to properly internalize masculinity ‘struggles with identity and sexuality will almost always follow.’”
Both the pages above refer parents to Focus on the Family’s “Christian Counseling Network,” which counselors and therapists can join only if they “have personal values matching Focus On The Family’s.” Focus on the Family states repeatedly on its website that children and adults alike will benefit from trying to temper their “same sex attractions” and live according to what they see as God’s universal plan for heterosexual marriage and children. Many of the counselors who belong to the Christian Counseling Network list “teenagers,” “children,” and “homosexual issues” among their specialties.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. The company has previously asserted that its algorithmic search results reflect the diversity of content on the web, and that results don’t reflect Google’s company position on political or social issues.
“I see our entire fight as mainly a tech fight.”
Focus on the Family is using search engine optimization (SEO) strategies to boost its ranking on search sites, and is listed as a client of an SEO firm called Trinet Internet Solutions. “The content we’ve created over the years is designed to help answer or address the most asked questions concerning the topic,” said Paul Batura, VP of communications at Focus on the Family. “As such, the material contains lots of keywords and relevant topics and as a result, will show up high in Google searches.”
Doug Pierce, who runs the Hong Kong-based SEO agency Cogney, says the main reason that Focus on the Family ranks highly is because so many other websites link to it, which is known to be a key determinant of Google’s ranking algorithm. Of the top websites that “backlink” to Focus on the Family, Pierce says, two were affiliated websites, two were other Christian groups, and the fifth highest ranking site was actually the New York Times, from an article about Vice President Mike Pence’s history on conversion therapy.
“Those first four sites are closely related with Focus on the Family so that’s why they link to them, but the fifth one, the New York Times, is interesting because they link to Focus on the Family just in passing reference, not as an editorial endorsement like the other sites that link to them — but nonetheless it still helps Focus on the Family rank better,” says Pierce.
Living Hope Ministries, the group that created the “conversion therapy” app that’s been banned from all platforms, also ranks highly in Google searches, and according to Pierce it’s because of the intense media coverage of their app. “Lots of mainstream media sites mentioned it and linked to [Living Hope Ministries] which only made [Living Hope Ministries] stronger on Google.” Pierce created a list of all the top ranking sites that backlink to Living Hope Ministries, and most of them were news websites that had written stories about the app.
Pierce says there’s an easy way to discuss these issues online and link to these websites without boosting their Google ratings. “There’s a piece of code they can add to their links called “nofollow” that would prevent this,” he says. “It’s a really simple one line addition to the code. Basically it’s due to technical ignorance on these mainstream sites that leads to proliferation of scientific ignorance in the search results.”
Google has begun to respond to increasing consumer awareness about the bias and prejudice reflected in its algorithms. When the UCLA researcher Safiya U. Noble wrote in 2012 about how the top results for “black girl” on Google were fetishistic porn sites, Google altered its algorithm.
Yet, in the past, the company has also scoffed at the idea of “search neutrality,” or the idea of prioritizing results solely based on reliability and relevance. And without a specific policy against prioritizing websites with misleading or harmful information, it will be up to users to report dangerous content — shifting responsibility for the safety of the LGBTQ community directly onto users.