Although our culture has made great efforts to recognize a gay presence in what is considered the social mainstream, there is a movement in this country that still exists and is supported that seeks to encourage people to refrain from admitting to their homosexuality and leading full lives as homosexual citizens. Many may have forgot the ex-gay movement, but it is alive and well, with financial and ideological support coming from the conservative religious community. Throw in hurrahs from the political ring, and it adds up to something that, once again, needs to be monitored.
The term ‘ex-gay’ was introduced back in the 1980’s, when conservative parents and churches were seeking a response to their disbelief in the coming out process and the continued media exposure of gay involvement and the rise of the attention to the AIDS epidemic. ‘Ex-gay’ described a person who had experienced a basic change in their sexual orientation and led a life as a heterosexual. The first ex-gay ministry that was popularized, Love in Action, offered classes that participants, young and old, could take to ‘attain abstinence from homosexual behaviors, lessening of homosexual temptations and to strengthen their sense of masculine or feminine identity’. This group formed with other organizations under the Exodus Global International Alliance, and its message, spread like wildfire. But the message of changing ones sexual orientation, or SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) is one that mental health professionals and other LGBT support groups find to be one that is harmful and dangerous.
A large body of research and scientific consensus indicates that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is compatible with normal mental health and social adjustment. Because of this, major mental health professional organizations discourage and caution individuals against attempting to change the sexual orientation. Atlanta’s Dr. Arlene Noriega, PhD and President of the American Psychological association Division 44 cites information from the APA created Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic response to Sexual Orientation. “I believe that SOCE are not only ineffective in altering someone’s sexual orientation but in some cases can be very harmful especially to young people”. The task force found “serious methodological problems in this area of research, such that only a few studies met the minimal standards for evaluating whether psychological treatments, such as efforts to change sexual orientation, are effective.”
This study explains why this is so alarming. Some of these groups may act to buffer stress and isolation by offering social support, fellowship and even mentors or role models. They even say that their group can offer refuge by those who are conflicted due to religious values and their sexual orientation. They most all define homosexuality as a sin. But according to Dr. Jack Drescher of the APA, this is the most harmful because “when conversion program participants fail to eliminate gay attraction, participants can conclude they are failures, that God doesn’t love them enough, which could cause more emotional distress or suicidal thoughts”, he contends.
Some groups even follow specific technique, such as a Homosexuals Anonymous, modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program. Others, such as Restoration Path, who would not return a phone call for this article, have linked homosexuality with childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse that led to the sexual sin that is homosexuality. Their tagline states that “God is still in the restoration business and He can truly restore the years the locusts of sexual and relational sin may have taken from you, your family or a loved one”. But it is interesting to note that ALL of the programs researched cost money for participants, and are not quoted on websites or in literature. Continued funding for these types of programs and camps are coming from sources other than the participants and are maintained, seemingly, by conservative churches that host such programs and from anonymous sources that some are not willing to reveal.
The nonprofit, People Can Change, ran by Rich Wyler, charges $650 for a weekend camp and does not list donors, but has the resources to host more “change camps” in the US and England. But he does make an interesting statement that adds to what critics of this movement deem as why the resurgence of these programs are happening. “It’s political. They don’t want us to choose our own path and to live out our lives way we want”, Wyler said. “They want us to join the gay cause.” Drescher says that religious and social conservatives argue that sexuality is not an essential component of someone’s being, which has political implications because some conservatives use the logic to argue that gays shouldn’t be awarded the same civil rights protections as other minorities. Adding to that, the lines have crossed in the matter of it being simply conservative thinking and the role that politics play.
In the case of former presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, (R) Minnesota, it provided political fodder and frustration when it was discovered that the Christian counseling service that her husband, Marcus Bachman, used faith-based therapy in an effort to convert clients from homosexuality. Filmed undercover by the gay support group, Truth Wins Out, the piece shows a therapist telling his gay identifying client that God created men’s eyes to be attracted to women’s breasts. Rumors surrounding Bachman’s clinic doing this had been swarming for years. The video and the backlash continued to dog Bachman’s campaign, but provided some of the possible reasoning of Bachman’s call as senator in 2004 of an amendment that would to the state constitution that would block gay marriages from other states to be recognized in Minnesota. The long-term effect of the scandal pushed her out of the GOP races.
Reaction has come to this issue from the other side to this issue and hopefully will continue. In 2011, the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, wrote to the Speaker of the House of Representatives during the hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act, supporting the scientific conclusion that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. And now the California Senate has passed Bill 1172, a direct hit and best response to SOCE programs. Sponsored by Senator Ted Lieu (D), the bill makes California the first state to prohibit a mental health provider from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with a patient under 18 years of age. Now signed, the bill will take effect January 2013.
The efforts to form this bill came from CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s three part series titled ‘ The Sissy Boy Experiment’, where they examined experimental therapy designed to make female boys more masculine. Senator Lieu saw the series and contacted Equality California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and others to create this legislation that is sure to spark even more debate and critique from the religious right. The bill itself was inclusive to all, but was paired down to minors because they are a more protected class and more vulnerable in this type of practice than adults. It is extremely important t protect youth from what is considered psychological abuse. The people opposing this continue to say same-sex orientation is a learned phenomenon. Does this legitimize not giving human rights and human protection to a certain class of people? Wyler thinks it doesn’t and that his camps are justified in what they do.
“Most of the gay world would say the only solution is to embrace it, and if you’re married, divorce your wife, leave your kids, and go with this life. Not everyone is willing to embrace it”, he says. An undercover freelance writer that participated in one of Wyler’s camps, Ted Cox, chronicled his experience and said that some experiments and practices at the weekend he attended seem deemed to find something to blame a person’s homosexuality on. “They will take any sort of negative event in your life, any kind of negative thing in your childhood and say ‘aha! That’s why you are gay’”. Wyler said Cox has some agenda to destroy his organization. Cox said exercises ranged from touching experiments to group therapy sessions. He concludes that what he witnessed was far from scientific or conclusive.
Dr. Noriega sums up the goals of what the bill, and the hopes of what it can do. “We are currently living in a social arena where LGBT issues are more prominent in the media, there are increasing numbers of television personalities coming out as gay, and a significant number of influential individuals coming out as straight allies.” And while there are still important obstacles, the gay community has made strides on the road to obtaining full rights as citizens of this country. The shifting of the social fabric in our society may have created less support for sexual orientation change efforts. However, there is still a strong effort to pathologize and change sexual orientation from the conservative religious community. And our youth are the most vulnerable.