There is “no evidence that sexual orientation change efforts work.” This was the American Psychological Association’s verdict on “ex-gay” therapy after an appointed task force of experts studied the issue for two years.
This conclusion did not surprise those of us who work with people who have been harmed by such programs. For example, I just interviewed Patrick McAlvey, who entered therapy to change his sexual orientation at the age of 19. His counselor, Mike Jones, is the director of Corduroy Stone, an affiliate of Exodus International.
McAlvey says that his sessions included prolonged hugs, the suggestion that he use handyman tools to increase his masculinity and questions about the size of his genitalia. There was also an episode of “holding therapy” where he reclined into the lap of his supposedly “ex-gay” counselor for an hour. The goal, according to McAlvey, was to get comfortable with his own manliness by “feeling the strength” and “smelling the smell” of another man.
What Jones and other ex-gay counselors routinely call “therapy” can seem a great deal like foreplay to the rest of us.
“I think it does a lot of damage to peoples’ mental health,” said McAlvey. “If I had had a fair representation (of gay life) I could have avoided a lot of suffering.”
Of course, such therapy and ministry programs can only exist by grossly distorting the lives of gay people. For example, in a recent radio interview, ex-gay activist Charlene Cothran claimed that gay people do not want legal equality and are really only interested in the “freedom to be a homosexual in a park with no clothes on.”
The APA deserves credit for taking ex-gay therapists to task for twisting the truth and holding them accountable for their scare tactics, such as claiming that there are no happy gay people.
“The limited published literature on these programs suggests that many do not present accurate scientific information regarding same-sex sexual orientations to youth and families, are excessively fear-based and have the potential to increase sexual stigma,” said the APA report, “Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation.”
It was encouraging to see the APA question the ex-gay tactic of teaching vulnerable clients to live in a fantasy world. Groups like Exodus and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), regularly encourage clients to say they have converted, even though they are still gay. The idea is that by proclaiming a false heterosexual identity in advance of any legitimate change, the desired transformation will eventually come.
This idea is equivalent to me wanting to play professional basketball, so I begin to identify as a member of the New York Knicks. Never mind that I am too short, too old and not good enough to make the roster. If I embrace this surreal existence long enough, I will one-day be dunking the ball under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
It is imperative that clients are honest about who they are and not prodded to make claims that are not true. Such a gap between fantasy and reality, according to the APA report, can create “cognitive dissonance” and does not resolve “identity conflicts.”
Most important, the APA report smacks down the absurd notion, pushed by charlatans, that allowing such quackery increases the “self determination” of clients. Contrary to their lofty claims, ex-gay counselors are actually providing the opposite of what effective therapy should offer, which is a nonjudgmental atmosphere where clients can embark on a journey of authentic self-discovery.
Instead of a neutral facilitator, these unethical practitioners set themselves up as surrogate father (or mother) figures. Appropriate client-centered therapeutic models are displaced by therapist-centric sessions, where the main goal is not letting down “Daddy” or “Mommy”, and his or her often religious-based expectations. In such situations, it is the ideological needs of the therapist that are paramount, not the mental health of clients.
The APA’s report also pointed out the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, saying that, “At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions.”
Reinforcing this point is Exodus International’s President Alan Chambers, who said in an interview last week that he lives in “self denial” and that “ex-gays” are successful by “denying what might come naturally to us.” While extraordinary mental gymnastics may allegedly work for Chambers, most people would find that such repression is destructive to self-worth and psychological well-being.
To counter the APA’s rigorous effort, NARTH produced a shoddy report that cherry picked outdated research, including dated shock and aversion therapy experiments to “cure” homosexuals. It is telling that NARTH included examples of torture to support its tortured attempts to make ex-gay therapy appear ethical and effective.
The APA pulled few punches and couched its top-notch report in direct terms. Hopefully, this effort will limit the number of psychological casualties produced on the couches of ex-gay therapists.