There are two really interesting articles in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine dealing with the intersection of religion and sexuality, and both merit a careful look. In another piece, I’ll examine the one about gay activist turned “ex-gay” activist Michael Glatze, but that’s going to take some time, so I’m tackling this one first. It’s about the idea of therapists — not complete wingnuts, mind you — helping clients either stay in the closet or live lives which are completely counter to who they really are, based on the clients’ religious desires to remain “pure.” Or something. Let me say on the front end that this article makes me want to throw things, because it elucidates so clearly the harmful effects that fundamentalist religious indoctrination has on people. Having experienced such indoctrination myself, it makes me furious, but simultaneously grateful that I was able to, over a period of years, to abandon that indoctrination entirely.*
The article presents us with a conundrum: what to do when a client comes in and can’t balance their religious indoctrination/beliefs with their sexuality? Which wins out? How do good, well-meaning therapists treat these clients for whom tweaking the specific doctrines of their religious beliefs isn’t an option? As it turns out, some mental health specialists have some ideas, but I don’t think they’ve found the answers yet:
“I’m a very strong believer in people’s rights,” [therapist Denis Flanigan] said one gray morning at a Starbucks in Houston. But during his early training, he encountered a few clients who either would not come out of the closet or suffered mightily when they did. Christians of the kind who earnestly believed that the Bible deplored homosexuality were particularly troubled as they tried to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. The more Flanigan studied this conundrum, the more he came to see it as intractable. Some gay evangelicals truly believe that to follow their sexual orientation means abandonment by a church that provides them with emotional and social sustenance — not to mention eternal damnation. Keeping their sexual orientation a secret, however, means giving up any opportunity to have fulfilling relationships as gay men and women.
“When these clash, what do you do?” Flanigan recalled thinking, and when he began to research the topic about a decade ago, he found few answers beyond the obvious. Antigay religious groups would not condone homosexuality; they thought gays should just give up their orientation, and the most extreme among them offered frightening “conversion” practices. Nonreligious gays thought the conflicted should just walk away from churches that won’t accept homosexuals as they are. “Which trumps which?” Flanigan asked himself. “Religion or sexual orientation?”
So basically, the approach they’ve taken is to focus on the client’s needs and desires first and foremost. Is the religious angle so important to them that they want to find a way to be authentic within that framework? Are they looking to keep a job in that religious framework while remaining husbands and fathers in public?
“Psychological ethics say that we’re supposed to support religious beliefs and support sexual orientation,” Flanigan told me. “But there was nothing I knew of that says what to do when they conflict.” As far as he could tell, the only choice those people had was to give up one or the other.
Here is the tragedy in all of this. They’re working with these clients, trying to meet them where they are, but they’re addressing none of the root causes of people’s anguish, which is caused by religious indoctrination. It’s sad that there are so many people brought up in those sorts of environments, where the idea of “Christian love” has a lot more to do with judgment and guilt than it does with any human definition of “love.” It should be taken as a given that this article is dealing with grown-up, reality-based mental health professionals, so the crock of shit known as “ex-gay” or reparative therapy is not even on the table. No, that has been successfully laughed out of intelligent, educated company in this country, and for good reason.
So these mental health professionals are essentially helping people stay in the closet. That might be a band-aid, but it’s not a solution. The difference here is that we’re dealing with therapists who actually do mean well and have their clients’ best interests at heart, unlike the Joseph Nicolosis of the world, who go about their work with the empathy of common sociopaths. Another therapist, Douglas Haldeman, discusses the approach he came up with to deal with these sorts of cases:
Haldeman found in his research that the vast majority of people seeking to change their orientation held strong religious beliefs; often, these were married men with families who grew up in a church and who felt that they had far too much to lose by coming out.
In other words, Haldeman was certain that conversion therapy didn’t work, but he wasn’t sure that gay-affirmative therapy — helping gay clients to see that their discomfort with their orientation might come from internalizing a prejudice — would help them find peace of mind, either. In these circumstances, Haldeman tried a different approach.
The approach Haldeman used was, in the therapeutic parlance, client-centered; that is, the client’s desires took precedence over any values or opinions held by the therapist. So if John wanted to be a gay man who lived as a straight man, Haldeman would help him become that person.
I said before that this article makes me want to throw things. It still does. I was raised in a marginally conservative home, but ended up being exposed to seriously hateful religious indoctrination in high school in two churches I was involved with. Perhaps it was because I’ve always been strong-willed that I was able to at least put the self-hatred I had learned, along with the religious spew, in order to at least start on the journey out of the closet. It makes me seethe knowing that there are others who truly believe what they have been taught, that who they really are is unworthy of God.
Again, these therapists are certainly well-meaning, as they try to find answers for how to treat those who have been spiritually bullied and abused into believing that self-hating religious beliefs are truly what is best for them, or worse, that those beliefs are actually true in any sense. But the mental health community doesn’t have the real answers yet, possibly because we still haven’t wrapped our heads around the notion, in this nation at least, that spiritual abuse is itself a sickness inflicted on unwitting individuals. And as you read this piece, you’ll see that this sort of “client-centered” therapy leads to some serious double-lives, some grade-A hypocrisy, in the pursuit of giving these poor souls a little inner peace.
Warren Throckmorton is discussed in the piece as well. Most of you are familiar with him, but if not, in a nutshell: Warren is a Christian psychologist who used to preach the “ex-gay” nonsense, but became disillusioned when he realized that the luminaries of the fundamentalist/”ex-gay” industries are common liars, and started to question everything he thought he knew about human sexuality and its intersection with religious faith. In the section about Throckmorton and Mark Yarhouse, our own Wayne Besen is quoted:
Yarhouse and Throckmorton came up with what they called sexual-identity therapy (SIT). At first, Yarhouse told me, many left-leaning therapists saw SIT as a trick — conversion therapy by another name, and many remain skeptical: Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, an organization devoted to debunking the ex-gay ministry, told me that though he respects Throckmorton, he still believes that SIT is just another way of encouraging repression. “I think Throckmorton means well and really wants to help people reconcile their faith and sexuality,” Besen said. “However, the more appropriate way is for people to find a more moderate religion that doesn’t force them to live at cross purposes with their sexual health.”
Therein lies the rub. Some people of faith are raised to view it as a source of comfort, support, love and fellowship. The fundamentalist world is lacking in those departments, though, if you don’t easily conform to their definition of “normal.” The sad thing, though, is that while Wayne is completely right about the best way to handle these things — find a more moderate religion, do some research and go through the long, arduous process of abandoning religion altogether, etc. — some people are just far too tortured by their religious faith to do so. Abusers like to break their victims down until they feel that they are powerless and weak without the abuser around. You see this with abusive husbands, child rapists and anyone else who gets off on controlling people. These are also the hallmarks of fundamentalist religious indoctrination. Find comfort from the pain at the source of the pain, etc.
I wish I had the answers. Instead I just encourage the mental health community to keep working on their side of it, keep trying new things that, above all, respect people’s integrity and their true selves. The good news is that more and more people are abandoning religious fundamentalism every day, so future generations of Americans, perhaps, won’t need such therapy as much. Moreover, more and more people are getting the counter message of love and acceptance and equality — the It Gets Better project comes to mind — far earlier, even while they’re still being drowned in the baptismal font. The bad news is that as they lose power, religious abusers are digging in their heels and will certainly be around to hurt a few more generations of their own gay offspring.
I quoted liberally from the article, because it’s long and hits a lot of topics, but you all should take the time to read it if you haven’t already. We all have a lot of work left to do.
*I also abandoned religious faith in general, but that’s not the point, as there are several valid ways to unshackle oneself from religious indoctrination. My atheism has very little, if anything, to do with my sexuality, as I didn’t actually become an atheist until age 28, nine years after I came out of the closet.