Gay-to-Straight Conversion Therapy Challenged in the Courts

Joanna Schroeder hopes that the courts expose the greater truth about so-called “Reparative Therapies”, which take advantage of the anguish some men experience when their same-sex attraction conflicts with their spiritual beliefs.

Before 1980, homosexuality was considered a disease, classified among other psycho-pathology in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That is, until Professor of Psychiatry Robert Spitzer and his team eradicated homosexuality as a disease for the third edition of the widely-used mental health reference guide referred to as “The DSM”.

As Scott Stossel noted in his profile on Spitzer in The Atlantic, Dr. Spitzer’s place in history as a gay rights ally was cemented for the work of removing homosexuality as a disease. But Spitzer’s reputation also had a blight on it. Stossel explains:

The episode: At a conference in 2001, Spitzer delivered a paper on “reparative therapy”—commonly known as “ex-gay therapy”—called “Can Some Gay Men and Lesbians Change Their Sexual Orientation?” His answer, based on interviews he’d conducted with 200 men and women who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation, was yes. The study, later published in a peer-reviewed journal, provoked huzzahs from “ex-gay” advocates (the man who’d normalized homosexuality was now declaring it could be treated!) and cries of disbelief from colleagues and homosexuals. In the face of the onslaught, Spitzer stood by his research.

But recently, even as he is battling Parkinson’s Disease, Spitzer has spoken out against the practice, also called Conversion Therapy, reversing an assertion he has stood by for years. After a revelational conversation with Gabriel Arana from The American Prospect, Spitzer admitted problems with his original study and article. From Stossel’s article:

On April 25, Spitzer himself wrote a letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which had published his study. His letter didn’t merely acknowledge his study’s “fatal flaw” (there was no way to determine whether the test subjects who claimed they had changed their sexual orientation really had) but also took responsibility for its consequences: “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.”

Dr. Spitzer’s ethical and professional responsibility is inspiring, but it’s also incredibly timely. As the New York Times reports, and as we covered a few months back, California Governor Jerry Brown is attempting to make Gay-to-Straight Conversion Therapy illegal for minors in the state. On top of that, a group of men and their families who spent extraordinary amounts of money on Gay Conversion therapy will be legally challenge the success claims of these groups. Erik Eckholm of The New York Times explains the background behind this case being brought to court in New Jersey:

The former clients said they were emotionally scarred by false promises of inner transformation and humiliating techniques that included stripping naked in front of the counselor and beating effigies of their mothers. They paid thousands of dollars in fees over time, they said, only to be told that the lack of change in their sexual feelings was their own fault.

Not only did the men and their families spend the money on these expensive camps, retreats, and therapy programs, but they also spent money on therapy to help repair the emotional damage caused by the shaming and blaming nature of this therapy. The New York Times article details life inside of these camps, closely resembling a story The Good Men Project ran two years ago by Ted Cox, who went undercover in a Christian Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp. Ted recounts the blaming of others, the “touch therapy” and other uncomfortable—if not intrusive and traumatic—rituals designed to help the person who is struggling identify the “why” behind his same-sex attraction.

What appears to be the motivating force behind these camps and therapies, is a sense that Conversion Therapy programs take advantage of the painful struggles that individuals with feelings of same-sex attraction experience when those around them consider their natural feelings to be abominations. Men like “Dave”, whom Ted got to know while under cover at the conversion camp, suffer greatly with the fact that no matter what they do, they are left with pain and confusion.

After disclosing to Dave that that he isn’t gay, and explaining that instead of seeking help, he was doing an expose on the camp they were both at, Ted and Dave had a powerful and painful conversation that illustrates the deepest immorality behind promising a person that anything can help them change who they are:

Dave calls back after a couple of hours. He is more composed, but he wants to know more about my motivation, about my stance on homosexuality.

I tell him that I think he’s normal, and that professional, reputable psychological organizations agree. I tell him that biologists have observed homosexual behavior in hundreds of species. I doubt I get through to him. How much does science really matter when God has spoken?

And there’s more to consider than just Dave’s feelings. “What do you want me to do?” he asks. “Leave my wife? Leave my kids? Just go live with some guy?”

There’s no easy choice for Dave. Either way, he loses something. Leaving a religious philosophy like Mormonism isn’t as simple as changing underwear brands. Often your friends stop calling, and your family members stop inviting you to dinner. Sure, Dave could finally live out and proud, but at what cost?

“I don’t know, man,” was all I could say. “I don’t know.”

What is Dave to do? It’s easy to imagine why he was looking for a solution to the problem of his sexuality. But ultimately, Conversion Therapy—as Dr. Robert Spitzer has noted—is not shown to actually “cure” anyone. And hopefully the courts will see how damaging these false claims can be to guys like Dave—guys who are hoping that there is something that can save not only their marriages and relationships with their churches and communities, but also save their souls.


Read Ted Cox’s Undercover at a Christina Gay-to-Straight Conversion Camp


Photo courtesy of Flickr/ell brown

About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane,,, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. The former clients said they were emotionally scarred by false promises of inner transformation and humiliating techniques that included stripping naked in front of the counselor and beating effigies of their mothers. They paid thousands of dollars in fees over time, they said, only to be told that the lack of change in their sexual feelings was their own fault. – NY Times


    I’ve come across the nude element of supposed Conversion Therapy, and I may even have some idea of the concepts, theories and ways in which it can be used to to cause psychological changes in people – Think Abu Ghraib …… But for the life of me…. after years of studying Cults, Abuse, Indoctrination and psychological control, I have yet to even encounter ” …beating effigies of their mothers”, linked to any outcome other than Jaws Dropping and those advocating the Therapy being labelled Loony Tune!

    I’m glad that the court case is being brought under “Consumer Protection” torts. It’s one thing being into kink and paying for someone to provide it – It’s quite another for a person to claim they will for a fee provide service which involves Psychology – and for them to then simply torture the subject.

    I’m becoming more concerned though, because there is so little talk or reference upon “reparative therapy” and women being targeted. I do hope to god that the Loony Tunes are grossly sexists and anally fixated and there isn’t a tsunami of gay women out there being abused and tortured in silence.

  2. My in-laws (fundamentalist B-thumpers from MN) found out that I sexually abused by older boys from age 7-14. Their reaction…First, to gossip about it throughout their church and similar population; Second, to allow the gossipers to churn the myths and the experiences Uncle Bob had with HIS son when HIS son CAME OUT. Wait….I didn’t “come out…” I just disclosed about… THIRD!!! They contacted a work-farm out in MN that specializes in “these things.”

    Wait!!! just WAIT…what do you mean “these things?” My situation is uniqu… FORTH!!!! They worked-out a plan for the bible-based farm to EXCORSIZE the DEMONS from me. (I shit you not…they were gonna excorsize the demons from me). It would take at least a YEAR of my life, but I’d be “immersed in the bible, when I was not working with the horses and fellowshipping with the other demon possessed, gay victims of … WAIT! WAIT WAIT !!!!!! I’m deathly allergic to horses, cows, sheep, hay and arse-holes!!!!! I’ll have asthma attacks that WILL kill me within an hour of being there!

    Oh…well…we were only trying to help.

    They called off the capture-team that was going to take me in the middle of the night. (I shit you not)

  3. wellokaythen says:

    Is it just me, or does it seem like a silly idea to take gay men who want to be straight and lock them up together with other gay men as a way to make them all straight? Doesn’t this seem like an odd way to do it? Make them straight by bonding them in emotionally deep encounters with other men — seems counterproductive. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to make them straight anyway, I don’t want anyone to feel like he should “pray away the gay” anyway, and it’s totally unethical to try it on people too young to consent to it. Even if was possible, ethical, or sane, it seems like a poor method to achieve that outcome. Wouldn’t it be more effective for a woman to talk the man?

    If you’re gay and into neurotic, shame-filled closet cases, these places sound like great places to cruise for guys. Religious guilt can make sex awfully intense.

    Perhaps the “post-gay” male therapists are not as “post-“ as they claim….

    • wellokaythen says:

      Ooh, can I supervise a camp where straight women want to be lesbians? I saw it in a movie once, and it looked like an interesting therapeutic method. Okay, yes, the production quality of the film was rather poor, and the lighting, dialogue, and sound were abysmal, but you got the general idea….

  4. SnottyNozeBratt says:

    I’d like to see the entire physcho babble industry taken to court to prove MANY of their therapies and drug lifestyles work.

    I know TOO many people who use them religiously (clue right there) and addicted to their meds and who exhibit no release from what took them for “counseling” in the first place.

    They are self declared experts with little proof of their views. Experts as assigning names and syndromes not even novices to curing.

  5. They can call it therapy if they choose, but it’s abuse.

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