These surprising, but simple truths are often missing in the discussion about conversion therapy.
Some of the most disturbing letters I receive are from young men beating themselves up for being gay and who live in fear of losing their souls to an eternal hell. Their distress is palpable, even through email. I wish I had the words to make their pain go away, or could be where they are to offer a hug and lend an ear. Some are convinced that, unless they change, they will never be acceptable to society, to their families, to God, and worse, to themselves.
Though I’ve created and amassed a long list of resources on my website, these men are emotionally bound to beliefs and ideals that don’t easily bow to facts. I understand. I was there for decades. No one could have changed my mind. I lived in petrified fear of being wrong and all the consequences it brought.
It’s not surprising to me when people justify faulty research and stretch to believe the promise of change from the conversion therapy charlatans. The leaders who have gone through conversion therapy, need to believe it themselves. Straight therapists, on the other hand, enjoy fame and fortune on the backs of unwitting and often willfully blinded strugglers and their families. My heart breaks for those caught in the trap of conversion therapy, even its ex-gay leaders, but I have no tolerance for those who push their wares simply to satisfy their personal disdain for LGBT people and make a buck doing it. We didn’t know much about conversion therapy in 1990, when I went through it, but we certainly do now.
1. Homosexuality is NOT a mental disorder
This seems silly to say at this point. After all, it was removed as a mental disorder in 1973. Yet, those who want to believe that there is something wrong with their, and everybody else’s, same-sex attraction, believe that the only reason it was removed as a mental disorder was because of pressure from the gay community. That’s what I was taught, too.
The fact is that there had been immense persecution of LGBT people up to that point who were fed up with the abuse they received from the police and other facets of society. When a 1956 study by Evelyn Hooker entitled “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” became available to the public in 1970, gay activists, now aware of this research that proved there was no mental health difference between gay and straight men, became more vocal. A small group “began disrupting professional medical conferences whenever homosexuality was discussed” (Baldock, 2014). Their message was, “Stop talking about us and start talking with us” (ibid).
This is when the mental health organization and the gay community began discussing what it was like to be gay. In 1972, a group was invited to speak on a panel with the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Consequently, with a better understanding about homosexuality from the mental health community, a majority vote removed the stigma of homosexuality, declaring that it was not a mental disorder.
2. Homosexuality is not caused by bad parenting
As I highlighted in my article, What Does Ex-gay Really Mean?, the idea that sexual orientation is influenced by bad parenting was put to rest decades ago, even as far back as Sigmund Freud himself, who first propagated the idea. Rogue psychotherapists have used “bad parenting” as a way to justify using reparative therapy on their clients. If sexuality is more biologically and neurologically rooted, as research suggests (see Brain sex: Gender, Sexuality and Cultural Roles), psychotherapy is not going to change anyone’s sexual orientation. The fact is, as you will see below, sexual orientation cannot be changed.
I have seen first hand the devastation brought on parents and families who were told the reason their child is gay is because of something they did. When the child doesn’t change, or at least doesn’t maintain the behavior modification, these people are often consumed by tremendous guilt. In some cases, the child is barred from relationships with his or her own family, because the family believes he or she is simply unwilling to change.
If bad parenting were the cause of homosexuality, then common sense tells us there would be many more gay people than there are. On the other hand, most of us have heard stories, or know people who came from horrendous backgrounds who are straight.
3. Sexual orientation change doesn’t work
In 2007, the American Psychological Association created a task force, which looked for studies on the efficacy and safety of sexual orientation change efforts. Between 1960 and 2007, they found 83 studies. Most of them were conducted prior to 1978 and only one of them had a true control group. Studies between 1999 and 2007 were qualitative in nature, and told researchers more about the types of people seeking change than whether or not it worked.
“Given the limited amount of methodologically sound research, claims that recent SOCE [sexual orientation change efforts] is effective are not supported,” the study said.
What the study did find is:
“The participants in this body of research continued to experience same-sex attractions following SOCE and did not report significant change to othersex attractions that could be empirically validated, though some showed lessened physiological arousal to ALL (emphasis mine) sexual stimuli. Compelling evidence of decreased same-sex sexual behavior and of engagement in sexual behavior with the other sex was rare” (p 2).
There is no evidence of anyone truly changing his or her sexual orientation, though there is plenty of evidence to show changes in behavior. Most often, what feels like change, and is reported as change, is a suppression of “all sexual stimuli.” Once away from the often subconscious mental or social pressure of other conversion or reparative therapy leaders and participants, individuals begin experiencing sexual attraction again, but with added shame, guilt and defeat.
4. Attempts at sexual orientation change can be harmful
The task force also found that:
“…there was some evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm from SOCE. Early studies documented iatrogenic [illness caused by treatment] effects of aversive forms of SOCE. These negative side effects included loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety. High drop rates characterized early aversive treatment studies and may be an indicator that research participants experienced these treatments as harmful.”
A more recent study in 2014 found that, “the SOCE methods most frequently rated as either ineffective or harmful were individual effort, church counseling, personal righteousness, and family therapy” (Dehlin, et al). But, the study showed:
“…methods rated as effective did not appear to generally reflect any changes in sexual orientation but instead referred to several other benefits, such as ultimate acceptance of sexual orientation, a decrease in depressive or anxiety symptoms, and improved family relationships. One such example from the personal righteousness narratives illustrates this point: ‘Instead of meeting original goals, the direction of the goals changed as I learned to accept and love myself as I am—as God created me.’” (ibid).
In my personal research, and story, I’ve found that most people harmed by conversion therapy (as opposed to reparative therapy) were frequently indoctrinated in religious fundamentalism. The psychological harm has proved to be immense and long lasting.
5. Personal Stories of “change” are not evidence.
While I’m a proponent of sharing our personal stories, when it comes to the “ex-gay” message, things get a little convoluted. The problem is that these stories are purely subjective. Ingrained beliefs, particularly when they come from faith and core values, cause us to perceive and believe what we want to be true, against the evidence and against the odds.
In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer points out that there is no special neural network for belief. “The feeling of conviction is what we rely upon as consumers of beliefs…clearly this feeling can become uncoupled from good reasons and good evidence in any domain (mathematical, ethical, etc.)” (p 137).
In my interviews with former conversion therapy leaders and participants, some of whom spent decades spreading their message, I heard them say the same thing. “I truly believed I had changed and was continuing to change.” The message they shared with their audiences and clients was with the utmost sincerity and honesty.
But because belief is so powerful, the only way to test true change is by attaching a penile or vaginal plethysmography to men or women and record blood flow and arousal levels while they view erotic materials. To date, this has never been done. (And the line to share their stories just got shorter.)
The other tactic often used by “ex-gays,” of course, is to change the definition of change, as I’ve written before.
I’ve been told I have a personal vendetta against “ex-gay” groups and conversion therapy. Of course, my accusers are “ex-gays” and proponents of conversion therapy who assume that just because it didn’t work for me (after 25 years!) that I’m just bitter.
In reality, what drives me are the countless stories I hear from parents, former ex-gays, church leaders and spouses whose lives have been devastated by the lies and misinformation of the “ex-gay” message. These people were caught in the firestorm, trying to do what was right, while ignoring the reality of what was truly happening to them and around them.
Photo – Flickr/Ryan Hyde