Homosexuality Can Be Cured. In 2005, a 16-year-old named Zack Stark used his Myspace page (remember Myspace?) to tell the world about his experience at Refuge, a fundamentalist Christian camp which “exists to be a Christ-centered ministry for the prevention or remediation of unhealthy and destructive behaviors facing families, adults, and adolescents.” Stark’s parents had sent him to Refuge in the hope of changing his sexual orientation from gay to straight. The program was described as lasting 2–6 weeks. During the day, participants attended sessions in a “park-like setting.”
At night, they were sent to a hotel with a legal guardian. In an email to his parents, the leaders of the program described details including “solitary confinement, isolation, and extreme restrictions of attire, correspondence, and privacy sanctioned by biblical quotations.” Using the newly evolving social media to tell his story to the world, Stark wrote: “Even if I do come out straight, I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter” (SIECUS, 2005).
Stark’s experience is unfortunately not that unusual. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in response to the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, there was a movement that clung to the idea that homosexuality was an illness and promised to cure it. Called reparative therapy or conversion therapy, it often employs extreme methods (such as administering electric shocks if patients show signs of arousal when viewing same-sex images).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured | Homosexuality
Supporters of reparative therapy sometimes call their patients “ex-gays” and claim that these men (and women, though mostly men) are now happily living as heterosexuals. Former ex-gays, however, tell a different story.
In fact, in recent years many of those who started and supported the movement have announced their opposition to it, saying it does more harm than good. Major medical and mental health associations agree and suggest that this approach is potentially dangerous.
What we have to remember, however, when reading about reparative therapy and efforts to “cure” same-sex attraction, is that until 1973 even mainstream medical organizations considered homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Starting With Freud
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist in the 1900s, is largely considered to be the father of modern psychology. He pioneered the practice of psychoanalysis and presented numerous theories about how the mind and psyche develop including a number of theories about sexuality. Though he never focused too heavily on homosexuality, Freud seemed to be tolerant for his time. In the 1930s he signed a statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexual acts in Germany and Austria.
He believed that everyone had some homosexual component within them but that “normal” people were able to sublimate it. He saw homosexuality as the “unconflicted expression of an infantile sexual wish” (Drescher, 1998). He did not believe that curing homosexuality was truly possible and his one attempt to do so within his own practice failed completely.
In the case of a young woman who had fallen in love with an older woman, he writes: In general to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much prospect of success than the reverse, except for good practical reason the latter is never attempted.
Those who followed Freud through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s continued to believe that homosexuality was a problem of the psyche and many began to search both for the cause, and unlike Freud, the cure. Bieber and his colleagues believed that parents were to blame.
Socarides wrote in 1968 that, “The family of the homosexual is usually a female-dominated environment wherein the father was absent, weak, detached, or sadistic (Socarides, 1968, as cited in Drescher, 1998). (Ironically, Socarides’ own son came out as gay in the 1990s; Drescher, 1998). Others at the time believed that homosexuality was caused by a phobia of taking on the expected gender role. They suggested that behavioral therapy used to cure other phobias could be adapted to cure homosexuality.
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Ovesey believed that the cure for homosexuality was quite simply heterosexual intercourse. He acknowledged that most patients would be resistant to the idea but that it was the therapist’s role to push him gradually through dating women and then “necking,” “petting,” and eventually going further. If the patient continued to resist, however, the therapist might have to give him an ultimatum by threatening to terminate treatment (Dresher, 1998).
Others who were devoted to sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), as they are sometimes called in the professional literature, used aversion treatments “such as inducing nausea, vomiting, or paralysis; providing electric shocks, or having the individual snap an elastic band around the wrist when the individual became aroused to same-sex erotic images or thoughts” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
A Change in Thinking
While these practitioners were trying to alter the behavior (and some would say the very essence) of their patients, others were beginning to question whether homosexuality was really an illness in the first place. In 1957, psychologist Evelyn Hooker studied a nonclinical sample of homosexual men and compared them with matched heterosexual men.
She found no difference in how welladjusted they were. Up until that point much of the research had been carried out on people who presented to psychologists and psychiatrists asking for or needing help. Similar research a year later found similar results among homosexual women.
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Over the next decade, research into sexual orientation proliferated and continually found few differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. Moreover, research failed to support the theories that family dynamic, problems with gender identity, or early trauma caused homosexuality (American Psychological Association, 2009).
This was also when the gay rights movement was gaining momentum and activists began arguing that it was time for the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders known as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
In the early 1970s, some of these activists heckled a talk being given by Dr. Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University. Spitzer, who describes himself as always being drawn to conflict, sat down with the hecklers to hear why they believed homosexuality should not be considered an illness. He was intrigued by their arguments.
He was also a junior member of a committee that was in the process of rewriting the DSM. He organized a symposium on the issue and entered into heated debates with some colleagues (including Socarides) who remained committed to seeing homosexuality as a mental disorder.
In the end, the committee and the American Psychiatric Association sided with Spitzer and voted to drop homosexuality as a disorder and replace it with “sexual orientation disturbance,” a diagnosis designed to identify people whose sexual orientation, gay or straight, caused them distress (Carey, 2012).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
The Rise of Religious Reparative Therapy
Some psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, chief among them Socarides, remained firmly opposed to this decision. They continued to argue that homosexuality needed to be cured and as the mainstream professional organizations began to see it differently, they set out to create a new organization. Socarides, together with Joe Nicolosi, a leader in the reparative therapy movement, and others formed NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). NARTH was founded on the “assumption that obligatory homosexuality is a treatable disorder.”
The goal of the organization was to study homosexuality but it was not open to the suggestion that its founding doctrine was flawed: “NARTH officers may opt to deny or remove membership when an individual’s written statements or public speeches show clear antipathy to this position” (Drescher, 1998).
NARTH was not the only organization that promoted reparative therapy but the others came mostly from a religious rather than a scientific background. In 1976, Exodus International formed as an umbrella organization for religious ministries that were practicing reparative therapy.
The mission of Exodus, at one point boasting 260 ministries around the world, was to “[mobilize] the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality.” The organization described itself as “the leading global outreach to churches, individuals and families offering a biblical message about same-sex attraction” (Exodus International).
Exodus and other ex-gay ministries became quite vocal in the 1990s. In 1998, Exodus was one of 15 prominent conservative groups that paid for a milliondollar ad campaign telling people they could “pray away the gay” (Bessen, 2010). One ad starred the future president of Exodus, Alan Chambers, a selfproclaimed ex-gay, and his wife. That same year, Focus on the Family began its traveling road show “Love Won Out,” which was designed “to educate and equip Christians on how to respond to the issue of homosexuality in a biblical way” (Truth Wins Out).
The event catered to parents and young people, and explained that homosexuality is the result of bad parenting but that it can be overcome. The website Truth Wins Out, however, says that attendees are treated to information designed to paint homosexuality in the worst light possible. It quotes one of the event’s speakers as saying: “I’m telling you homosexuality, homosexual impulse, is always prompted by an inner sense of emptiness. It’s not about sex” (Truth Wins Out).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Proponents argued that many individuals, especially those whose religion disapproved of homosexuality, were deeply conflicted and that they were offering these people (mostly men) a lifeline. Jeffrey Ford, a psychologist who both underwent and provided reparative therapy before breaking with the movement, likens it to a strict religious cult: “The followers are sincere and devout; they believe what they are saying with their heart, mind, and soul”
He explains that, in the beginning, finding the ex-gay ministry gave him hope and a forum for acknowledging what he had been going through all his life: “To move from feeling isolated and alone into a community where others have shared similar life experiences is overwhelming. It’s right up there with falling in love or tasting chocolate for the first time” (Ford, 2002).
But the honeymoon eventually wore off. Ford was subjected to aversive shock therapy that left him with burns on his forearm the size of quarters. He was also encouraged to imagine a very stimulating same-sex encounter and then, when he became aroused, was guided into a scenario that was frightening or repulsive, such as having the person he imagined himself with vomit all over him. Looking back, he writes: “The process, in my opinion, was barbaric and abusive.
I felt ashamed and embarrassed waiting in the outer office with patients of other therapists. I would try to hide my arm or wear long-sleeved shirts so others wouldn’t see the burn marks as I left” (Ford, 2002). Worse yet, it didn’t work, as the homosexual feelings and fantasies kept coming back. In fact, during his work in an ex-gay ministry, Ford fell in love with a man and had his first homosexual experiences. This kind of sexual “acting out” was apparently not uncommon within the movement (Ford, 2002).
Despite this, people within the movement, like Socarides and Nicolosi, continued to publish articles and books exalting the success of efforts to change sexual orientation but as insiders they lacked credibility within the scientific and medical community. In a recent New York Times article, Drescher described the movement: “People with a shared worldview basically came together and created their own set of experts to offer alternative policy views” (Carey, 2012).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
In fact, in many ways the ex-gay movement became synonymous with efforts to deny gays and lesbian their civil rights, especially the right to marry. Then the movement found some scientific legitimacy from the most unlikely source. Dr. Robert Spitzer, the psychiatrist who argued vehemently for the changes to the DSM in 1973, decided he was curious about whether reparative therapy really could work. To study the issue, he recruited 200 men and women who were set to receive reparative therapy at centers across the country including those run by Exodus and NARTH.
In in-depth telephone interviews he asked them about their sexual urges and feelings before and after therapy and rated their answers. He then compared the scores. In a paper which was released at a meeting in 2001 before being published without peer review in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, he concluded that most of the participants had successfully changed their sexual orientation (Carey, 2012).
Those involved in the reparative therapy movement hailed this as a major victory and seized on Spitzer’s reputation and career history as proof that he wasn’t biased. They used this study to argue for everything from removing Gay Straight Alliances from schools to banning gay marriage and civil unions. Many of Spitzer’s colleagues, on the other hand, jumped on this study as bad science, noting that it didn’t test any particular method of conversion therapy (some of the participants weren’t even in therapy but had simply done independent bible study) and that it relied on self-reported feelings. They argued that the participants may have been lying not just to Spitzer but to themselves.
A Movement Begins to Crumble
Even as supporters of reparative therapy were reveling in their new found legitimacy, the movement itself was besieged by a series of scandals. In 2000, John Paulk, a Focus on the Family employee and board member of Exodus North America, was placed on probation by Exodus after being photographed in a well-known gay bar in Washington, DC (Evangelical Press, 2000).
In 2003, an actor whose photographs were used in the “pray away the gay” ads because he claimed to have been cured of homosexuality was found to be meeting men on the internet (Bessen, 2010).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Then, in 2006, Michael Bussee apologized for his role in the ex-gay movement saying “to those I may have harmed by my involvement in EXODUS, I am truly sorry.” Bussee had helped found Exodus International in the early 1970s.
Despite his commitment to reparative therapy, however, he fell in love with Gary Cooper, another anti-gay counselor, whom he met while traveling the country for the ministry. The men later left the agency and their wives and married each other in 1982. In his public apology he describes growing up hating his gay feelings and beginning a search for his own cure as young as 12.
His search took him to the church where he was told “If I had enough faith, I would eventually be ‘set free.’ I wanted it more than anything and sincerely believed it would come true” (Bussee, undated).
He explained that he and a friend founded the first ex-gay ministry, EXIT, to help other people in their positions because they wanted more than anything for faith to cure them. Eventually though he realized that: “Not one of the hundreds of people we counseled became straight. Instead, many of our clients began to fall apart — sinking deeper into patterns of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing.” Bussee now describes himself as an “evangelical Christian and a proud gay man” (Bussee, undated).
Other ex-gays also came forward saying that their sexual orientation had not been changed despite years of reparative therapy. John Smid, the former director of Exodus affiliate Love in Action, told MSNBC host Chris Matthews that he is gay and that it is actually impossible to change one’s sexual orientation (Huffington Post, 2011).
And others got caught. In 2010, the national media seized on the story of George Rekers, an anti-gay “expert” who co-founded the conservative political group, the Family Research Council, and was frequently called to testify on why same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt children. Rekers was found on vacation with a male escort he had hired.
Rekers rather lamely claimed that he had hired the young man to lift his heavy luggage. In a later statement, Rekers tried to explain further: “I deliberately spend time with sinners with the loving goal to try to help them” (Huffington Post, 2010).
Still, the biggest blow to the ex-gay movement may have come in the form of science. In 2009, a special committee of the American Psychological Association released a report finding that there was no evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through therapy. The committee looked at 83 previewed studies conducted between 1960 and 2007 and found that most had serious methodological problems and none were based on “credible scientific theory as these ideas have been directly discredited through evidence or rendered obsolete” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
As for the type of therapy practiced by Exodus International and similar groups, the task force concluded that it is grounded in religious beliefs that see homosexuality as sinful and as such are “not based on theories that can be scientifically evaluated” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
Though some research subjects appeared to have learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual feelings it was unclear how long these behavior changes lasted. Moreover, the task force concluded that this did not amount to changing actual sexual orientation: “The results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex sexual attractions or increase othersex attractions through SOCE” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
Even more damning, the report concluded that SOCE was potentially harmful. The task force said it had concerns about the safety of SOCE and the unintended harms noted by some participants including “loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
The task force was even more forceful when it came to inpatient treatment of adolescents such as the program that Zack Stark was forced to attend. It wrote: “We found that serious questions are raised by involuntary and coercive interventions and residential centers for adolescents due to their advocacy of treatments that have no scientific basis and potential for harm due to coercion, stigmatization, inappropriateness of treatment level and type, and restriction of liberty” (American Psychological Association, 2009).
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
The American Psychological Association is not the only organization to condemn the practice of reparative therapy. The Pan-American Health Organization said in a statement released in 2012: “Services that purport to ‘cure’ people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” It went on to say “‘Conversion’ or ‘reparative’ therapies and the clinics offering them should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions” (Pan-American Health Organization, 2012).
The American Medical Association “opposes the use of ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation” (American Medical Association, undated).
The American Psychiatric Association says “Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable. Furthermore, anecdotal reports of ‘cures’ are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.
In the last four decades, ‘reparative’ therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
The American Academy of Pediatrics, notes: “Therapy directed specifically at changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation” (Frankowski and Committee on Adolescence, 2004).
The Future of Reparative Therapy
In May of 2012, Robert Spitzer apologized to the gay community for his role in endorsing reparative therapy and the ex-gay movement. He admitted that he agreed with his critics — the study he had published on the success of reparative therapy was flawed. As he told the New York Times, “The simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.” He went on to apologize: I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.
I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.
Homosexuality Can Be Cured
Even more shocking than this better-late-than-never apology was the announcement that came from Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, just a few months later. At the organization’s annual meeting, Chambers explained that there is no cure for homosexuality and that reparative therapy offered false hopes and could even be harmful. The group, he said, would no longer practice it.
In the media blitz that followed, Chambers told the Associated Press: I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included. For someone to put out a shingle and say, “I can cure homosexuality” — that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.
To the New York Times he said that virtually every “ex-gay” he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included. He went on to say that gay Christians like himself face a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it (Eckhols, 2012).
A year later, Chambers made another shocking announcement; Exodus International was closing its doors for good. In a statement Chambers said: “Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we’ve ceased to be a living, breathing organism. For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical. The board voted unanimously to close the agency” (Kempner, 2013).
As the practice continued to fall out of favor, two states, California and New Jersey, passed laws that prohibit reparative therapy for minors. As we write this, the New Jersey law is being challenged in court but other states are nonetheless considering similar laws. Though there will always be those who believe homosexuality is a sin and seek to change it, and there are still organizations like NARTH that take a hard line,
for the most part repetitive therapy is looked at as a discriminatory practice that lacks any legitimacy.