A Response by Wayne Besen, Truth Wins Out:
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed SB 1172 that stops quack therapists from practicing dangerous “ex-gay” techniques on minors. This is great news, considering the American Psychiatric Association says that such practices can lead to “anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior.” Why would any responsible state allow children to be subjected to such child abuse that may lead to suicide?
Now that California has elected to protect kids from quacks, several states are considering passing similar measures in 2013. Stung by the California defeat and worried about their future, the lucrative “ex-gay” industry is launching a PR offensive to stop new laws from being passed in states and even at the federal level. The first shot in this PR war is the launching of the “ex-gay” website Voices of Change which is being promoted by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and People Can Change (PCC), an organization with close ties to discredited laughingstock Richard Cohen. This new, website contains a video from NARTH co-founder Dr. Joseph Nicolosi where he claims that half of all his clients are teenagers.
“We are getting more an more teenagers coming to our clinic,” said NARTH’s Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. “Years ago when I did this work, the average age of our clients was late 20′s and early 30′s…Today, I would say that 50-percent of the clients at our clinic, and we have 135 ongoing cases a week. We have seven therapists that only deal with homosexuality. Fifty percent are teenagers.”
If this weren’t disconcerting enough, Cohen’s International Healing Foundation (IHF) has received a huge infusion of cash to target desperate and vulnerable LGBT youth. More than $635,000 was donated to IHF in 2011, with most of the funds allocated for group’s “Special Schools Project.” This appears to be an effort to con school districts into believing that IHF is a pro-gay organization that stands for diversity and is opposed to bullying. However, the group’s dishonest materials cunningly try to steer LGBT youth to “ex-gay” organizations.
Today’s New York Times story written by reporter Erik Eckholm is set in the middle of this ongoing fight. It focuses on the marketing efforts of “ex-gay” activists to try to trick Americans into believing they have gone from gay to straight. Fortunately, it seems that some of the people who commented on the Times’ website today saw through the “ex-gay” charade:
It doesn’t seem like these men are ‘not gay,’ it just seems they are no longer sexually active with other men. If these were the best examples of people ‘cured,’ then the results speak for themselves. Celibacy is not the same thing as heterosexual. – Julia Pappas-Fidicia, New York City
As a Clinical Psychologist who has written on ‘reparative therapy,’ let me offer a suggestion. Those offering reparative therapy should no longer offer it as a therapy of any sort, but instead as a religious ritual or discipline. After all, that’s what L. Ron Hubbard did with Dianetics when he got into trouble offering it as a treatment. He simply turned it into a world religion. Scientology. Let ‘Gay Reparative Therapy’ be the Scientology of Christianity. — Jonathan C. Smith, PhD, Chicago
I feel a great deal of sympathy for these men, who are clearly suffering. I’m sure these treatments are not cheap…They are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous psychologists and ‘therapists.’ – Daisy, Boston
Before we look at this story, I want to share a few thoughts:
First, NARTH — which is the leading “ex-gay” organization — is to the study of sexual orientation what a mood ring is to the science of depression. Ex-Gay practices are a fringe PR gimmick designed to trick a majority of voters into believing that gay people can change so they can rationalize discrimination and justify poor treatment. Here are two very telling quotes that capture the real views of NARTH:
“Homosexuality is a psychological disorder, there is no question about it,” said NARTH co-founder, the late Charles Socarides. “It is a purple menace that is threatening the proper design of gender distinctions in society.” – Weiss, Rick (1997) Psychologists reconsider gay conversion therapy, The Washington Post, Aug. 14
“The most important message we can offer is that there is that there is such thing as a ‘gay child’ or a ‘gay teen.’ We are all designed to be heterosexual. Confusion about gender is primarily a psychological condition, and to some extent, it can be modified.” (p. 16) A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Joseph and Linda Ames Nicolosi (2002)
In the first quote, Socarides reveals NARTH’s true hostility by calling homosexuality a “purple menace.” Now, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I suspect that the phrase “purple menace” appears nowhere in the literature at top universities where future mental health experts are trained.
In the second quote, Nicolosi uses the phrase “designed to be heterosexuals.” Designed by whom? They are clearly talking about God. Reparative therapy is a discredited practice because of its theological origins masquerading as science. Where genuine science seeks to explore the natural world in hope of discovering answers, reparative therapy is the opposite because it starts with a prepackaged theological answer and gropes for verbiage to justify its preordained conclusion. The prospect for learning and observation are non-existent, since all results have to conclude that homosexuality is a purple menace caused by a mental illness that can be fixed. Clearly, reparative therapy is based on the Scripture Method, not the Scientific Method.
The often desperate and vulnerable clients featured in today’s NYT article are extremely susceptible to swaggering “ex-gay” therapists who appear to have all the answers. For many, if the therapy does not work, they will immediately become outcasts in the religious communities they grew up in. They can lose their family. If they are youth they can become homeless. In other words, there can be enormous incentives for claiming transformation, even when it is not true.
This is exacerbated by name it-and-claim it theology shared by many “ex-gay” ministries. The idea is that if you keep repeating something desirable and have faith in God, He will reward you for your faith. Much “ex-gay” testimony can be attributed to such theology which can be summarized as lying to please the Lord. This tradition is a Catch 22, because if you acknowledge not changing, the minister might say, “of course you aren’t changing, you don’t have enough faith.”
Finally, there is also the issue of conflict of interest or “ex-gay” for pay. Leading NARTH defenders, like David Pickup and James Phelan, have a business model they are defending. Because of clear financial incentives, what they claim about change is essentially meaningless — much like those selling products on late night infomercials. It should be noted that it is difficult to find many “ex-gays” who don’t have a conflict of interest, such as running a therapy outfit or a ministry.
Now, on to the New York Times article. It begins with the story of Blake Smith:
Mr. Smith, 58, who says he believes homosexual behavior is wrong on religious grounds, tried to tough it out. He spent 17 years in a doomed marriage while battling his urges all day, he said, and dreaming about them all night.
But in recent years, as he probed his childhood in counseling and at men’s weekend retreats with names like People Can Change and Journey Into Manhood, “my homosexual feelings have nearly vanished,’ Mr. Smith said in an interview at the house in Bakersfield, Calif., he shares with his second wife, who married him eight years ago knowing his history. “In my 50s, for the first time, I can look at a woman and say ‘she’s really hot.’ ”
I pity Blake and his family. How did it make his wife feel when he was pretending to be attracted to her for 17 years while dreaming about men all night? How does arranging such doomed marriages promote family values? It seems that Blake has wasted the majority of his life in denial, selfishly dragging down women into his self-induced shame hell. He deserves to find true love and physical satisfaction, and so do his two wives, past and present. Had he not been indoctrinated with anti-gay religious dogma, he likely would have been much happier, whole, and not viewed his sexuality as a cosmic battle between good and evil. Blake does not represent success, but the neurotic mess that homophobia can make of one’s life. Instead of liberating Blake, he’s in his 50′s still deluding himself at the expense of his family. I’ve seen this story before — where men finally come out in their 60′s and 70′s and ask, “where did my life go?”
I’m going to be blunt: I don’t believe that Blake finds women hot. When it comes to wild claims of creating a heterosexual attraction for homosexuals, “ex-gay” organizations have no credibility and shouldn’t be taken seriously. How many “ex-gay” posterboys have they put forward only to be revealed as frauds? Given the number of high level failures, one would have to be naive to take their tales of change at face value.
The story continues, pointing out two recent disasters for the “ex-gay” myth:
Reparative therapy suffered two other major setbacks this year. In April, a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, publicly repudiated as invalid his own 2001 study suggesting that some people could change their sexual orientation; the study had been widely cited by defenders of the therapy.
Then this summer, the ex-gay world was convulsed when Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, the largest Christian ministry for people fighting same-sex attraction, said he did not believe anyone could be rid of homosexual desires
I’m a big proponent of using physical measures to test whether such people have gone from gay to straight. (No Lie MRI, polygraph, penile plethysmography). Relying on the tale of an “ex-gay” who often has a financial incentive or is under immense social pressure or religious duress to claim success is a waste of time. Since physical tests exist, why doesn’t NARTH use them? Is Blake willing to take one? If not, what is he hiding?
On the topic of genuine “change,” here is a revealing quote from former Brazilian “ex-gay” poster boy Sergio Viula:
“In fact, ex-gays don’t exist – it’s pure self-suggestion…What we ex-gay purveyors did was an act of violence against ourselves, as we had internalized the homophobia that surrounded us from early childhood, as well as against the others, because we reproduced that very homophobia which they had internalized by themselves long before. We just reinforced it even more.”
Next, the article states:
Mr. Smith is one of thousands of men across the country, often known as “ex-gay,” who believe they have changed their most basic sexual desires through some combination of therapy and prayer — something most scientists say has never been proved possible and is likely an illusion.
The New York Times article actually refutes the “ex-gay” claim that there are thousands of such folks by the people interviewed:
Aaron Bitzer, 35, was so angered by the California ban, which will take effect on Jan. 1, that he went public and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional.
To those who call the therapy dangerous, Mr. Bitzer reverses the argument: “If I’d known about these therapies as a teen I could have avoided a lot of depression, self-hatred and suicidal thoughts,” he said at his apartment in Los Angeles. He was tormented as a Christian teenager by his homosexual attractions, but now, after men’s retreats and an online course of reparative therapy, he says he feels glimmers of attraction for women and is thinking about dating.
“I found that I couldn’t just say ‘I’m gay’ and live that way,” said Mr. Bitzer, who plans to seek a doctorate in psychology and become a therapist himself.
So the posterboy for success that the “ex-gay” industry provides America’s most prestigious newspaper says he feels “glimmers of attraction for women?” If this is the best they can do, it proves the entire “ex-gay” schtick is a public relations campaign, not genuine therapy that produces actual results. For all the boasting, bluster, and bravado, the “ex-gay” industry has virtually no success stories to highlight. For example, when Dr. Robert Spitzer asked NARTH’s Dr. Joseph Nicolosi for subjects to participate in his 2001 study on whether people could go from gay to straight, Nicolosi failed to deliver his allegedly “changed” homosexuals. In a video TWO filmed this year with Spitzer, the psychiatrist claimed:
He [Nicolosi] just didn’t have many patients who could really claim that they had changed.
With a lack of real success stories from actual clients, the “ex-gay” industry is forced to make the preposterous claim that “ex-gays” are invisible because they are afraid to come out of the closet, fearing that people like me might be mean to them. According to the Times story:
Ex-gay men are often closeted, fearing ridicule from gay advocates who accuse them of self-deception and, at the same time, fearing rejection by their church communities as tainted oddities…Many ex-gays guard their secret but quietly meet in support groups around the country, sharing ideas on how to avoid temptations or, perhaps, broach their past with a female date.
Here are a few facts:
The figures show that homosexuals are 2.4 times more likely to suffer a violent hate crime attack than Jews. Gays are 2.6 times more likely to be attacked than blacks; 4.4 times more likely than Muslims; 13.8 times more likely than Latinos; and 41.5 times more likely than whites, according to the FBI figures. Homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crimes.
Clearly, the consequences of coming out as a gay person can be very real, while there is zero evidence to show that coming out as heterosexual (which is what ex-gays presumably are) is dangerous. Despite the ominous figures, millions of gay people have still managed to come out, even in conservative or rural areas. My spouse came out in a Nebraska town of 700 people. Yet, somehow we are supposed to believe that so-called “ex-gays,” with no evidence that they are victims of hate crimes, are cowed into hiding? Such whining defies logic and is simply the irrational bleating and excuse making of “ex-gay” groups who can’t produce success stories to back their unsubstantiated claims.
Interestingly, the LGBT movement has no trouble showing survivors of such psychological abuse and there are even support groups, like Beyond Ex-Gay.
In short, the “ex-gay” industry is posing as victims when they are actually the victimizers. They are about enforcing rigid gender norms, restrictive stereotypes, and portraying homosexuality in the worst possible light. Far from open minded, the only acceptable outcome for clients in such intolerant programs is heterosexuality. Anyone who comes to a different conclusion is ostracized and stigmatized. It is most amusing that the “ex-gay” industry has recently adopted the liberal arguments of choice, exploration, and self-determination, when in reality these alleged choices are a mirage. What they really offer is heterosexuality or the highway. Who are they kidding?
The truth is, “ex-gay” abuse is about shame and blame. Virtually no one over the age of thirty felt comfortable growing up gay. Even in today’s more accepting society, there are large swaths of America where coming out can mean social death, rejection, and even violence. However, that has nothing to do with one’s homosexuality, but the way people react to it. Reparative therapy adds to the stigma, reinforces a client’s shame, and confuses stereotypes with science. Had the the people featured in this story been brought up in a more accepting environment, then they would have been more comfortable as gay. Homosexuality, like heterosexuality, consists of sexual arousal and feelings of love — two beautiful elements that make life meaningful. The only way it is possible that homosexuality can make one unhappy is if it is portrayed as bad and leads to adverse social consequences. (which is why “ex-gay” groups are in favor of anti-gay laws) The idea that homosexuality on its own can lead to unhappiness is a bizarre and incoherent notion rooted in bias.
What we do know is that acceptance of LGBT youth makes a huge difference on whether they succeed or fail:
San Francisco State researcher Caitlin Ryan found that LGBT teens who experienced negative feedback from their families were 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide, 6 times as vulnerable to severe depression, and 3 times at risk for drug abuse. (Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan 2009)
Science is also beginning to show that because of social pressure, there are those who claim to be heterosexual — even homophobic — who are actually gay. Reparative therapy is just another variation of the conditions that strongly encourage false reporting. (We know at least two clients of Nicolosi who were asked to participate in Robert Spitzer’s study who were not transformed, which shows the strong degree of coercion used by the reparative therapy industry)
It is important to note that reparative therapy can temporarily make perfect sense intellectually to a lot of people who fit NARTH’s prefabricated model of what causes homosexuality. If one comes from a home with a distant same-sex parent or was sexually abused, or picked last on sports teams, their paradigm seems to explain everything in a neat and tidy manner. Except it really explains nothing at all and there is no evidence that such family dynamics cause homosexuality any more than an affinity for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or the enjoyment of Hula Hoops. NARTH’s family model can also describe the experiences of countless heterosexuals. It also conveniently ignores the fact that a great number of LGBT people grew up in loving homes where they were close to both parents. For example, I’m very close to my parents who have been married for 43 years. I was never sexually violated. I grew up bowling, fishing, and playing football. I was the captain of my high school basketball team, MVP, and second team All-City in 1988. When I hear the theories of reparative therapists, I think they are bizarre and have little to do with reality. But, that’s easy for me to conclude, given my background. It’s not so easy for those to figure out who fit neatly into NARTH’s fabricated paradigm and are more easily exploited.
In terms of “ex-gay” industry opening up old wounds by discussing family dynamics, this can be terribly problematic. Unless the counselor is qualified (and many “ex-gay” counselors are not), such unwise actions can cause additional trauma to clients. This is one more reason that LGBT youth should never be subjected to the abuse of such charlatans.
I will also note that initially going to “ex-gay” therapy does bring a sense of relief for some clients. A good portion of them are deeply closeted and have had very little contact with openly gay individuals. Suddenly, they went from complete secrecy, loneliness, and silence, to having their sexual orientation out in the open — even if it is in a dysfunctional faux therapeutic setting. Whether one comes out as gay or “ex-gay” it is still a form of coming out and does bring a sense of peace. However, the same effect can be accomplished in a supportive setting and the glow eventually wears off “ex-gay” counseling when it fails to deliver on its false promise.
One defense for such therapy is this: “I don’t claim this is possible for everyone, but it works for me. What’s wrong with that?”
This is an old huckster technique used to bamboozle gullible people into buying snake oil. The idea is to use personal testimony to claim a product works knowing that such tales are difficult to refute. If one watches late night TV, countless infomercials — from weight loss products to face cream to muscle building formulas — make outrageous claims using personal testimony. The other appealing aspect is that when the product inevitably doesn’t work, the exploited customer can be blamed for not achieving the promised results. Reparative therapy is a con that uses the same tried and true methods of other swindlers. Of course, when it comes to “ex-gay” abuse, when the miracle or change doesn’t come, it can lead to depression or worse, as the victim can’t understand why they are failing. Often, they believe that they were abandoned by God, greatly exacerbating feelings of depression and low self-esteem.
Additionally, no one cares what an adult individual does in his or her private life. The problem arises when so-called “ex-gays” are paraded by political groups on national television and used to testify in an effort to pass anti-gay laws. For example, I started Truth Wins Out in 2006 after George W. Bush invited Exodus’ Alan Chambers to the White House to promote the Federal Marriage Amendment. The “ex-gay” issue only gained traction in 1998 when 16 anti-gay organizations launched the “Truth in Love” campaign with a full-page ad in the New York Times. Indeed, the “ex-gay” issue has never been about changing one’s sexual orientation, but using the idea of change to pass anti-gay laws. “Ex-Gay” activist Greg Quinlan, President of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) is currently working to overturn a marriage equality in Maryland.
It is also worth mentioning that there is a growing body of science is beginning to show that sexual orientation has biological origins. In many cases, the brains of gay and straight people are subtly different. Anyone or group that makes a blanket statement that sexual orientation is caused by rape or poor parenting doesn’t have a very strong grasp of science, they are not informed on the latest research, or they are deliberately twisting the science for political gain. When groups like NARTH and PFOX makes such statements it reveals a level of ignorance so great that it virtually disqualifies them from even being in the room where serious scientific discussions occur.
I’ll end by featuring the testimony of Cameron Michael Swaim in today’s Times story:
Cameron Michael Swaim, 20, said he is in the early stages of his struggle to overcome homosexual desires. Mr. Swaim is unemployed and lives with his parents in Orange County, Calif., where his father is a pastor of the Evangelical Friends Church of the Southwest.
He tried the gay life, but “it just doesn’t settle with me,” he said, and ultimately decided “there’s got to be a way to heal this affliction.”
Through weekend retreats and participation in a Southern California support group Mr. Swaim has started to explore his family relations, he said, something that has been painful but seems to be helping.
“I’m building my confidence around men,” he said, “ and that has built my confidence around women.”
Five years from now, Mr. Swaim hopes, he will be engaged or married. In the meantime, he is trying to scrape together enough money to start seeing a reparative therapist.
It is a shame that Swaim had the misfortune of being born into a home where he was taught to despise his most intimate feelings and human needs. Had be been born into a better home — one that would have been accepting rather than rejecting — he would not be suffering though the obvious trauma he now endures. It is heartbreaking that he plans to drag a woman into his mess — a woman who surely deserves better than to live his lie. When this future marriage finally falls apart, I urge his ex-wife to contact the Straight Spouse Network. This is a support group for women and men who were often used as props and beards in the destructive game played by the “ex-gay” industry. There is also the book, Straight Wives, Shattered Lives by Bonnie Kaye.
Reparative therapy by nature is coercive. It takes vulnerable people and tries to scare the heck out of them. For example, this comes from pg. 16 of the Nicolosi book, “Preventing Homosexuality“:
There are life threatening health risks associated with the gay lifestyle
A gay lifestyle adjustment will be difficult and socially controversial
Dr. Nicolosi has also told clients: “I do not believe that any man can ever be truly at peace in living out a homosexual orientation.”
Make no mistake, the gross distortions “ex-gay” therapists promulgate about gay life are the key reason people, such as those featured today in the Times, want to change. The charlatans offering help are the ones causing the harm.
The sooner such wanton child abuse can be stopped, the better.
About the Author: Wayne Besen is the Founding Executive Director of Truth Wins Out and author of “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth” (Haworth, 2003). In 2010, Besen was awarded the “Visionary Award” at the Out Music Awards for organizing the American Prayer Hour, an event which shined a spotlight on the role American evangelicals played in the introduction of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill.