By the time victims of so-called “ex-gay” or conversion therapy reach me at TruthWinsOut.org, their self-esteem has been trampled and their self-worth is non-existent. These individuals were often betrayed by therapists who were supposed to be helping, but turned out to be the root cause of their enormous pain and suffering.
Sadly, such therapists have aligned themselves with religious organizations that send the detrimental message that if a gay client refuses to undergo sexual conversion or commit to a lifetime of celibacy he or she will be socially ostracized or will burn in Hell. From my experience, I have yet to see how such coercive and cruel treatment is conducive to good mental health.
Having studied the “ex-gay” movement for a decade and authored a book on the topic, “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the “Ex-Gay’ Myth,” I have found that conversion therapy is ineffective, harmful and anachronistic. These therapies don’t make clients heterosexual, nor do they help reconcile faith and sexuality. All that is accomplished, unfortunately, is enticing vulnerable clients to pay dearly for the identical shame and repression they previously received for free.
Regrettably, a well-financed cottage industry has arisen to deny reality and distort the lives of gay and lesbian people. This is evidenced by a group of politically motivated right wing counselors who filed a formal complaint in February with the American Counseling Association falsely claming that the ACA had violated its own polices and had stigmatized the beliefs of Christian counselors. It’ real goal, however, was to bully the ACA into allowing some practitioners to harm clients, while shielding this damage in the cloak of religious liberty.
In another example, last summer, right wing therapists wrote a letter to protest the American Psychological Association. They were expressing their outrage over an APA task force that will review current scientific research and stances on conversion therapy in a brazen attempt to intimidate the reviewers.
On behalf of the survivors of such therapy, I implore all mental health associations to withstand such political interference and resist the attempt to mainstream fringe therapies that harm gay and lesbian Americans.
There are three primary reasons why such therapy models should be definitively rejected. First, they confuse stereotypes with science. Secondly, they lack peer review studies and evidence that such therapies work — while there is a growing body of evidence that they hurt large numbers of people. Third, they rely on bizarre techniques that are a blight on the field of mental health.
STEREOTYPES AND SCIENCE
I came out to my parents as a gay man in 1988 at the age of eighteen. Their first reaction was shock and the second was to try to “fix” me. Shortly after my revelation, my mother and father presented me with an audiotape, “Gay and Unhappy” that claimed it could turn me straight. I listened intently to a deep hypnotic voice that spoke over New Age music that told me I liked breasts and the way women smelled.
When this desperate measure did not work, my parents found a book that claimed I could succeed at sexual conversion. I soon learned that my homosexuality supposedly came from a distant father and weak prowess at sports. The book also suggested that the elusive cure was having non-sexual relationships with same-sex peers. This was baffling to me because I was very close to my dad, was an all-city basketball player in high school and had many heterosexual male friends that I wasn’t attracted to. According to the literature of conversion therapists, I should not have been gay.
Therapists, such as Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, further confuse myths with sound medicine. The doctor has repeatedly said at Focus on the Family seminars, “We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.” Nicolosi also encourages his male clients to drink Gatorade and call friends “dude” to increase their masculinity. Additionally, the doctor makes false statements about gay life, saying, “I do not believe that any man can ever be truly at peace in living out a homosexual orientation.”
On the twentieth anniversary of my coming out experience, legions of Americans have also chosen to live honestly and openly. We now have countless examples of gay men and lesbians who grew up in loving homes and excelled in sports. Indeed, there are even examples of former professional athletes who are gay, such as former pro baseball player Billy Bean and former pro football player Esera Tuaola.
Over the last two decades we have learned through empirical evidence that the simplistic cause and effect model offered by ex-gay therapists does not conform to reality. As the masses have come out, we now know that gay and lesbian people come from every imaginable background — just as straight Americans do. Any therapist that suggests otherwise clearly has not spoken to actual gay people and has not done the necessary research to make judgments on the etiology of homosexuality.
Ex-gay therapists lack peer review studies offering proof that their therapy is effective and not harmful to their clients. Their statistics are either inconsistent or non-existent. The only examples of “success” have come from non-peer-reviewed “research” at fundamentalist institutions that harshly condemn homosexuality and ban openly gay students — such as Pat Robertson’ Regent University.
The most noted “research” supporting the ex-gay viewpoint was Dr. Robert Spitzer’ controversial 2001 study that concluded a select few subjects highly motivated by religious belief could improve heterosexual functioning. This study made national news because in 1973 the Columbia University professor helped spearhead the removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
However, the study’ methodological flaws included using subjects who made their livings as anti-gay lobbyists. There was no accounting for bisexuality. The research did not include the vast majority of people who leave ex-gay programs dissatisfied. And, no physical tests were used to measure the veracity of his subjects’ statements or their sexual attractions. Essentially, the study consisted of Spitzer periodically calling handpicked anti-gay lobbyists on the telephone and asking them if they had gone from gay to straight. This was the equivalent of calling up employees of Phillip Morris once a year to ask them if smoking had harmed them.
Furthermore, Dr. Spitzer has repeatedly chastised right wing political organizations for exploiting and exaggerating his work and has gone out of his way to say that change is extremely rare. For example, on May 28, 2006 he told the Los Angeles Times, “If some people can change – and I think they can – it’ a pretty rare phenomenon.”
So, why is there a multi-million dollar industry devoted to “changing” people when the most optimistic study calls the possibility for a positive outcome a “pretty rare phenomenon”? Is it ethical to ruin the lives of thousands of gay people and their unsuspecting straight spouses for the remote possibility that one person might experience a small degree of change in their sexual orientation?
And, the possibility of any shift in attraction is highly suspect when one considers that most ex-gay testimonials come from paid staffers at political organizations, such as Exodus International or Focus on the Family. We rarely find independent people who claim long-term success that are not compensated political lobbyists — thus presenting a clear conflict of interest, since they derive their livelihood from their personal stories. In addition, even many of the high profile ex-gays who appear in the media have later come out of the closet or resigned in disgrace for not living as advertised.
For example, Focus on the Family’ ex-gay leader, John Paulk, was photographed in a gay bar in 2001. In 2003, Rev. Jerry Falwell’ ex-gay spokesperson, Michael Johnston, resigned after it was found he was having sexual relations with men he met on the Internet. The founder of Homosexuals Anonymous, Colin Cook, resigned after he was found to be having sex with his clients. The co-founder of Exodus International, Michael Bussee, left his wife and children to live with another male ex-gay minister. Indeed, the more the right wing tries to convince Americans that sexual conversion is possible, the more unlikely it seems.
Ex-gay ministers and therapists also use questionable techniques, such as exorcisms to rid gay people of the “demon of homosexuality.” They sometimes instruct clients to wear rubber bands on their wrists and snap them whenever they find a person physically attractive. Other times, “touch therapy” is employed, where the counselor caresses (sometimes abusively) a client sitting on his or her lap.
Equally damaging are religious counselors, such as Dr. Warren Throckmorton, who actually promote the peculiar notion that a person can effectively separate sexual identity from attraction. The idea that one can spend an entire lifetime in such obvious denial is usually untenable and often a recipe for inner-turmoil. Having extensively studied the ex-gay movement, it is my observation that this idea of the “happy celibate homosexual” is a mental health mirage. The people I have met at ex-gay conferences who are living in this state of love-limbo are hopelessly despondent and constantly on the verge of tears.
No one is suggesting that therapists alter their personal beliefs. However, religion cannot be used as a shield for practitioners who contribute to and exacerbate their clients’ suffering. It is crucial to the integrity of all mental health associations that they soundly reject politically tainted attempts to mainstream fringe psychological practices that have caused so much misery and dysfunction.
Right wing psychologists should also be denied permission to create a parallel system under the auspices of religious freedom. All patients – regardless of the belief systems of their doctors – should be able to receive the highest standard of care derived from strict adherence to the latest science and rigorous ethical standards. Conversion therapy fails to meet this test and is a cause for much unnecessary torment — not a solution for those who are conflicted by their sexual orientation and religious beliefs.