Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times printed an ad from an ex-gay ministry, as have other cities. The ad contained a lot of misinformation, including that homosexuality is caused by absent fathers and by sexual abuse.
Any rational person realizes that if fathers who worked a lot (and were therefore absent_ caused homosexuality, the rate of homosexuality would be at least 50%. And any rational person would find absurd the notion that men who were molested as boys bond to other men for sex, while women were so traumatized by their male abusers that they became lesbians. So the question is, why is this ad so damaging?
In spite of irrationality and misinformation, even some people in the mental health community – whose professional organizations all endorse that homosexuality is merely a different form of sexual expression – provide reparative (ex-gay) therapy.”
Originally known as conversion therapy, reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation from same-sex to straight. Interventions include staying away from known LGBT individuals, encouraging erotic fantasies prior to ejaculating (for men), wearing make up to feel more womanly (for women), and even electro-shock therapy, a practice that has allegedly stopped.
Watching the debate between supporters and opponents of conversion therapy, I’ve observed that reparative therapists make several assumptions.
First, they assume that a person’s sexual orientation is a preference. The second assumption is that a heterosexual orientation is preferable to a same-sex orientation. Using out-of-context religious quotes and other rationale, reparative therapists believe that heterosexuality is the only appropriate model for sexual behavior. Third, they claim to show “proof” of their success. These therapist’s clients tell them that they have changed, and they believe them.
However, each assumption by these psychotherapists is erroneous. Worse, their assumptions harm clients and damage the integrity of the profession. Many of these reparative therapists overlook the large amount of research that shows that there is a period where most lesbian and gay people feel uncomfortable about their sexual orientation and at times experiment with heterosexuality, maybe even being fooled into thinking that change is possible. Thus, these therapists inadvertently prey upon LGB people who are vulnerable. Unfortunately, there are also a handful of therapists who know that conversion therapy is not successful but are promoting a political and social agenda.
Regarding the idea that sexual orientation is a choice, every time I have done a workshop for nongay therapists and asked them how they developed their straight orientation, many of them tell me that this is the first time that they “get it”. If I then tell them that all they need is to have sex with someone of the same gender to change their orientation, they develop an even greater understanding of the error of this kind of thinking. Furthermore, most LGB people spend years becoming comfortable with their given orientation, so we already know that this assumption is false.
Regarding reparative therapist’s claim that they can cure homosexuality, LGB clients can fool their therapists into thinking they’re “cured.” Many individuals have good reasons to deceive their therapists. Some of them have to prove their heterosexuality so they can have joint custody of their children. Other reasons for faking a cure to their therapists include pressure from family of origin, being potentially excluded in wills, and desiring acceptance from their therapists.
As a case in point about deception, the two men who started Exodus International, which is closely allied with conversion therapy, had a clandestine sexual relationship for years while they were part of the organization. So, anyone can change their behavior for a while, but a permanent change in orientation, including fantasies and desire? No.
I have listened to accounts from individuals who have undergone conversion therapy. Ironically, for some ex ex-gays, these ministries are the starting point for coming out; they find relief in meeting others who think and feel like they do and take it from there. Knowing this gives me some relief that ex-gay ministries actually help some people to come out.
However, most individuals who try to change their orientation find it more difficult to come to terms with their sexual orientation. Several have talked about the torment they felt during their attempts, sometimes leading to self-harm, including suicide attempts. Thus, these therapists violate the first and foremost ethical consideration in the profession: Do No Harm.
Ironically, it is not being attracted to the same gender that causes certain individuals to resort to going to these types of ministries or trying conversion therapy. Rather, people seek them out as a response to hatred, prejudice, and intolerance. It will take some time to cure reparative therapy, but it is curable.