Menstuff® has information on countering for ex-gay claims.
This page, countering ex-gay claims, includes an exchange with the editor of Psychology Today and Rik Isensee regarding their ad policy for ex-gay advocates, plus a letter to Rik's evangelical cousin.
A helpful resource for those who would like to learn more about this issue: Sexual Conversion Therapy, edited by Ariel Shidlo, Michael Schroeder, and Jack Drescher (Haworth Medical Press, 2002) is a collection of essays and studies that provide an indepth consideration of ethical, clinical, and research perspectives on ex-gay claims, and attempts to change sexual orientation.
For a more humorous spin on ex-gay claims, and attempts to change gays to heterosexuality, check out my novel: The God Squad (a spoof on the ex-gay movement). Click on the cover for a link to an excerpt!
Psychology Today exchange:
Psychology Today published an ad (December, 2002) for a book called A Parents Guide to Preventing Homosexuality by Joseph and Linda Ames Nicolosi, who are advocates of reparative (or conversion) therapy to cure gays of homosexuality, and who make many ex-gay claims for their practice.
I wrote a letter to the editor to question their policy of accepting ads supporting ex-gay claims, and advocating reparative therapy, and the editor wrote me back. Ive included my initial letter, followed by a summary of his reply, and my response to his defense of ex-gay claims.
I find it very disturbing that Psychology Today would take an ad for A Parents Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, by Joseph and Linda Ames Nicolosi, who claim that homosexuality can be cured.
There is no scientific evidence that homosexuality can be prevented or cured. I am a licensed clinical social worker, and have seen the harm done gay clients who attempted to deny their sexual orientation through ex-gay claims, including this type of conversion or reparative therapy.
Yes, there are some gay people who feel bad about their sexual orientation, but thats because of the homophobia of many religions and the harmful practices of therapists such as Nicolosi. Holding out hope for a false cure and encouraging clients to pretend they are not really gay only aggravates and extends their suffering, often leading to self-hatred, substance abuse, and even suicide.
Psychology Today, as a journal providing psychological insights for a popular audience, has a responsibility not to mislead readers about such a harmful treatment, which has been discredited by all the mental health professions, plus the American Medical Association.
I hope you will review and alter PTs policy re: the acceptance of ads encouraging this outmoded and harmful form of treatment.
Rik Isensee, LCSW
Robert Epstein, editor of Psychology Today (who declined to have his reply quoted verbatim), responded with the following points: as a commercial publication rather than an academic journal, Psychology Today maintains a separation between its editorial and advertising departments, therefore they dont necessarily agree with the ex-gay claims of their advertisers.
He quoted the American Psychology Associations 1997 resolution on sexual orientation, which states that we are obligated to respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from our owneven if that includes unsubstantiated ex-gay claims.
Epstein also cited a review of outcome studies and other ex-gay claims that challenges the view that reparative therapy is not effective. Finally, he wondered if some advocates of gay rights are unwilling to respect any opinions (including ex-gay claims) that differ from their own.
Following is my reply:
Dear Dr. Epstein:
Thanks for your note in response to my concerns about your ad for Nicolosis book. I appreciate hearing back from you, and Im glad youre considering a piece on reparative therapy.
It seems that you were taken aback by the reactions youve received on this matter. You have to realize this isnt an idle intellectual debate for gay peopleyou might want to take a look at the film, One Nation Under God, which documents the abusive history of reparative therapy, in case youre not familiar with this story.
I think its somewhat disingenuous to claim you dont necessarily agree with your advertisers. Even if advertising is a separate department, you must have some guidelines and standards for accepting appropriate ads. If Scientific American, for example, took an ad for a book promoting creationism through intelligent design, Im sure theyd get a flood of letters from beleaguered biology teachers.
Is there room for reasonable people to disagree? Perhaps on the fluidity of sexual expression over time, but not about the basic question of whether homosexuality is an illness, that needs prevention or a cure.
Yes, Im familiar with Throckmortons review, whose conclusions were contradicted by another study in the same issue of the journal you cited: The results indicated that a majority failed to change sexual orientation, and many reported that they associated harm with conversion interventions. A minority reported feeling helped, although not necessarily with their original goal of changing sexual orientation. (See Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers Report, by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, June, 2002.)
Throckmorton is a professor and counselor at an evangelical Christian school called Grove City College. He also offered a slide presentation at the American Psychiatric Association in 2001 (Ethical Issues in Attempts to Ban Reorientation Therapies), in which he states, For some, it is easier, and less emotionally disruptive, to contemplate changing sexual orientation than to disengage from a religious way of life that is seen as completely central to the individuals sense of self and purpose.
I think its fine to offer treatment for a conflict between religious beliefs and sexual orientation. We can help clients sort through their beliefs, and empower them to decide what makes sense in their own lives. Disengagement from a religious way of life and changing sexual orientation are not the only options for resolving this dilemma. If they are also exposed to the fact that not all religions believe homosexual relationships are sinful, they may even be able to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sexual orientationa far less drastic (and potentially more integrated) approach than the false dichotomy offered by ex-gay proponents.
Throckmorton apparently sees celibacy as a reasonable alternative to gay sexuality: Those who were highly successful in attempting change of behavior and maintaining celibacy reported positive mental health on a variety of measures of happiness, loneliness, self-acceptance, and depression. In the same presentation, Throckmorton also acknowledged In another study by the same team comparing ex-gays and LGB persons, ex-gays reported positive mental health in their identity synthesis, with LGB persons reporting greater happiness, self-acceptance, and less loneliness and paranoia. (emphasis added)
If religious leaders insist their followers must avoid same-sex contact because its sinful, thats one thing; gay people can then decide whether that makes sense to them (although I would still question whether its all that healthy to suppress their true feelings for the sake of an ancient tribal taboo). But ex-gay treatment providers insist that same-sex contact is a mental illness they refer to with the condescending acronym of SAD (Same-Sex Attraction Disorder), and claim reparative therapy can help gays overcome their homosexual feelings and become straight.
It may be that some religiously-motivated gays see a celibate lifestyle as their only option, while some who are actually bisexual may even get married. But lets look at the heart of the matter: while some ex-gays may be ex-gay in the sense that they are avoiding gay sex, very few (if any) are ever ex-gay in the sense of no longer experiencing same-sex desires. This continuing struggle is commonly acknowledged in much of the ex-gay literature, and in interviews with both ex-gays and their counselors.
Since homosexual attraction is not a mental disorder, I believe it is misleading, potentially damaging, and unethical to offer a fundamental shift in sexual orientation as a goal of psychotherapy.
Im aware of your stewardship of Psychology Today, and your concern that prior to your tenure Almost anything could get in, and It lost respect among therapists, scientists and professionals. (From your interview with Biotech, June 29, 2001.)
Psychology Today could better fulfill its mission as a reputable resource by enforcing responsible standards in your advertising, as well as in feature articles.
Rik Isensee, LCSW
I have seen many clients in therapy who grew up in religious families that rejected them because of their sexual orientation. Ive also seen some clients who felt conflicted about being gay because of their religious background.
So I thought Id offer these thoughts as a way to help religious gays feel more confident about their own path, even if theyre unable to influence their familys opinions.
Last winter, my cousin sent me a Christmas letter describing his involvement with the Promise Keepers (a Biblically-based mens organization that encourages men to reclaim their role as head of the family). This movement was started by Coach Bill McCartney, who also spear-headed the Amendment 2 initiative in Colorado that would have denied civil rights to gay people. (Amendment 2 was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.)
My cousin is proud that the Promise Keepers welcome different races and denominations. When I pointed out that gay Christians are not part of their inclusiveness, he said gays would be welcome (along with thieves, adulterers, and other sinners), as long as they were willing to repent of their homosexuality.
In response, I sent him a review of my novel, The God Squad, a spoof on the ex-gay movement. (See link.) I also sent him a gay-affirmative analysis of the Biblical passages that are frequently cited to condemn homosexuality.
He wrote back with an article countering these interpretations, and I replied with the following letter. Given the differences between our world-views, its probably unrealistic to think this perspective will influence his opinion. For him, the Bible is the final authority, so historical, cultural, and psychological understandings of sexual orientation and scripture must be rejected if they appear to contradict his literal reading of Gods word.
Nonetheless, I thought I would post this letter in the hope that it might help gay people who are trying to reconcile their sexual orientation with their own religious beliefs.
Hope this is helpful, and I welcome your feedback!
Thanks for your reply and for the article in response to the gay-friendly interpretations I sent you. Not being a biblical scholar, I wont try to argue these specific points. What I find intriguing is how we arrived at such contrasting views of spirituality.
We grew up in the same church, but weve taken very different paths! You got involved in Youth for Christ, while I went to church camps and ecumenical meetings, visited Jewish and Buddhist Temples, talked with Mormon and Catholic friends, and learned how the spiritual impulse expresses itself in many forms through different cultures.
Im writing this letter from a Zen monastery/resort (you know youre in California when an austere monastery is also a lovely resort!). Last night I heard a refrain reminiscent of Christian salvationone of the Buddhist chants included a Boddhisatva vow to save everyone: Beings are numberlessI vow to save them.
Even at our gay summer camps, we have discussions fairly similar to yours: we also talk about what it means to nurture our relationships with a sense of integrity, commitment, and love. (I suspect, however, that our entertainment is a bit more risqué than the Promise Keepers!)
Yes, it appears that both of us have some professional investment in our respective lifestylesbut Im not trying to recruit anyone. If a client came to me with a religious conflict about his homosexuality, I would encourage him to become as informed as possible about various ways of understanding scripture, to speak with other gay Christians, and to make up his own mind. In the end, if he decided it was better to be celibate than to act on his orientation, I might question his choice, but I would wish him well. And I would be available if he needed to re-consider his position later on.
If your group simply believed homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so, I would still disagree with you. I think other aspects of the New Testament, especially the love and compassion of Jesus, far outweigh these references. Nonetheless, you have the right to define your own religious beliefs.
However, ex-gay treatment programs do not stop there. They claim they can cure homosexuality through reparative therapy, which is based on outmoded treatments and discredited theories about the origins of homosexuality. This is not just my opinionits the assessment of all the mental health professions: psychiatry, psychology, clinical social work, marriage and family therapyplus the American Medical Association.
I was invited to speak by the congregation of Freedom in Christ Evangelical Church about the detrimental effects of reparative therapy. Many of their own parishioners had been through these programs, grasping on to the false promise of a cure that often led to a cycle of shame, repentance, and self-blame. Some fell into a deep, suicidal despair, believing God had abandoned them: even after years of prayer and earnest devotion, they still felt love and attraction toward people of the same sex.
One church member named John read a letter from a close friend who committed suicide because he believed he would be better off dead than living the sinful life of a homosexual. John himself had left his husband of fifteen years at the insistence of his minister. He now regards this as the biggest mistake of his life. After many years of struggle, John finally quit his ex-gay program because he came to believe that God loves him exactly as he is, and cherishes his relationships.
Reparative therapy is unethical because it holds out the promise of a cure for a mental disorder that does not exist. Ex-gay ministries often use untrained, unlicensed counselors who have little or no experience dealing with serious anxiety or depressive disorders. I regard this treatment as malpractice, and would encourage any client victimized by these programs to file a complaint with the licensing board, and even sue for damages.
You questioned my depiction of a minister sexually exploiting his ex-gay recruits. No, I dont assume most ex-gay leaders set out to seduce young gays. My novel is a satire, with some exaggeration for comic effect, yet with a kernel of truthmany young people in these programs have been molested by counselors who are confused and conflicted about their own recovery, which leads them to act out their repressed desires by exploiting others.
You say homosexuality is just a feeling, and feelings arent reliable. The feeling you refer to so dismissively is love. (I doubt youd question the reliability of your feelings for your wife!) You compare gayness with lying, stealing, and adultery, yet these actions harm others, whereas same-sex love harms no one. You dont seem to realize the extent to which sexual orientationwhether gay or straightis an intrinsic part of ones sense of self. You assume that anyone who turns his life over to Jesus will be able to resist acting on his orientation because theyre only feelings, ignoring the fact that gay relationships can be just as heart-felt, committed, and profound as any heterosexual marriage.
I thought it was a hopeful sign that you believe Jesus came not to condemn He came to offer an escape from the rules and the law and the guilt. Sounds like good news to me! Youre acknowledging the distinction between the rigid rules of the Pharisees and a new relationship with God through Christ.
By accepting this new Covenant with God, you no longer abide by many other prohibitions in Leviticus, whether its eating lobster, trimming your beard, or wearing polyester blends. Even if you construe some of Pauls comments to be anti-gay, he also told slaves to obey their masters and would not permit women to teach. No one pays attention to these opinions any more, so why attach such importance to archaic taboos against homosexuality?
I believe its a mistake to take the Bible literally, since all religious texts are self-referential, with no outward validation of their claims or precepts, other than our own experience. Far from being without error, many of these ancient texts contradict what we know about the natural world, such as the age of the earth, or how life evolved. An amusing example from Leviticus: bats are a type of bird youre not supposed to eat!
I remember you once said, Jesus was either telling the Truth, or he was the worlds greatest liar. Despite the many inaccuracies and contradictions found in the Bible and other sacred texts, I dont see religious stories in terms of truth or lies. I understand the legends and myths from various spiritual traditions as metaphorical symbols: God, Atman, Allah, or Buddha can be understood as our higher Self, with Christ as a symbol of atonementhealing a sense of alienation from our own true nature.
We apparently represent examples of two different approaches to spiritualitywhich are often characterized as orthodox and mystical (or in theological terms, exoteric and esoteric)the former representing religions based on a formal creed, scripture, or dogma; while the latter tends to be more oriented toward an inner realization of our divine spirit.
The spiritual impulse in many cultures often reflects a desire for meaning. Spirituality can contribute to social cohesion and provide a guide to ethics and morality. It can also engender a direct experience of transcendence, and stimulate a sense of the sacred.
Spiritual traditions can nurture our growth insofar as they resonate with humane values. At their best, they offer inspiring examples of how to live a good life, with honor, integrity, and loving kindness. They can motivate us to rise above our own selfish desires and take others needs into consideration. But when religious rules are psychologically naïve and unrealistic, they can become harsh, condemning, and even cruel. This has led to self-righteous culture wars, gay-bashing, discrimination, and the denial of civil rights to gay people: in jobs, housing, military service, inheritance, medical decisions, adoption, and the right to marry.
I would describe salvation (reconciliation, or enlightenment) not as a matter of faith, but as an active participation in ones life and mind and emotional well-being. A fascinating quote along these lines comes from the Gospel of St. Thomas (one of the Gnostic gospels that never made it into the Bible): Jesus says, If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. An excellent caution against the dangers of repression!
In your letter you said, I cant claim to understand the feelings you have. However, if you and the groups youre involved with are going to take such a strong stand on an issue that you admittedly know little about, you need to be aware of real-world consequences. Religious right groups disclaim any responsibility for anti-gay violence (like the murder of Matthew Shepard), yet they often oppose the gay-straight discussion groups and anti-harassment initiatives that could help reduce attacks against people perceived as gay.
I encourage you to meet with some gay Christians who have been through ex-gay therapy to understand how these programs have brought real harm to many peoples lives. You may assume they just didnt pray hard enough or are simply indulging their feelings, but I suspect you have much more in common with gay Christians than you ever imagined.
Let me know your thoughtswishing you well on your own spiritual journey! Give my love to N
© 2008, Rik Isensee
Source: Used with permission.
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