By Kim I. Mills,
Human Rights Campaign
"Opinions energetically propagated and spurious facts diligently disseminated color the thinking of the people, and not only the uneducated. The intellectual is deceived as easily as the untutored by sanctimonious professions that conform to the moral code of time and place and flatter the feeling of self-righteousness." Franz Boas, 1927
The Christian right has for years claimed that sexual orientation is a mutable characteristic -- but only when it comes to homosexuality. They assert that gay people (yet never heterosexuals) "choose" their sexual orientation and that with prayer and counseling -- and sometimes drugs or shock therapy -- they can leave the "gay lifestyle."
While some conservative Christians may believe it is their duty to lead gay people out of what they contend is an inherently sinful life, religious political activist organizations -- such as the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition -- are motivated by politics. Public opinion polls consistently indicate that people who believe sexual orientation is a choice are less willing to support equal rights for lesbians and gays. For example, a 1996 poll found that among people who believed sexual orientation was a choice, 50 percent supported equal treatment of gays in employment; among those who believed sexual orientation was unchangeable, 69 percent supported equality in the workplace. 1 For religious political organizations seeking new fund-raising hooks since the fall of communism, this issue is a cash cow. These groups have consistently used the threat of what they have dubbed "the gay agenda" to motivate their adherents to contribute.
A recent spate of newspaper advertisements featuring people who claim to be ex-gay has revealed the fact that the sponsoring religious political organizations are promoting these techniques for political gain. The ads, which picture people who have undergone "conversions" to heterosexuality, have coincided with efforts by these religious political sponsors to derail the nomination of openly gay businessman James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg; with an orchestrated effort to reverse President Clinton's executive order banning discrimination against gays in federal employment; and with an attempt to strip the San Francisco of federal housing funds because of its law requiring companies that do business with the city to offer domestic partner benefits.. The ads have also included statements by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., comparing homosexuals to alcoholics, kleptomaniacs and sex addicts.
The idea for the ad campaign grew out of a Focus on the Family-sponsored meeting of religious political groups in Colorado Springs, Co., in June.2 "No focus groups, no polling," said Robert Knight of the Family Research Council. "We just did it."
These groups' assertions about sexual orientation are not borne out by the facts -- which doesn't stop the religious right from repeating over and over that they are correct and that gay rights organizations refuse to tell their community "the truth" about homosexuality -- namely that, in their minds, it is a mental disorder that can be cured.3
The psychological, medical and psychiatric establishments agree that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and that so-called "reparative therapy" aimed at altering gay peoples' orientations does not work and may, in fact, be harmful.
Here are some excerpts from position papers on this subject by the leading professional associations:
AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION 4
AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION 5
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS 6
AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION 7
Despite these clinical judgments by the leading professional organizations of scientists studying the phenomenon of human sexuality, the Christian right continues to argue that gay people should and can change their sexual orientations. They rely on two primary sources, one overtly religious, the other secular. The religious sources are known as ex-gay ministries, and they are spread around the globe, although many of their early leaders have reverted to homosexuality and some have become the most vociferous spokesmen against these ministries.
The main secular organization promoting the notion that gay people can "change" is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH. Because it is led by psychotherapists and psychologists, NARTH has an aura of scientific credibility. Its research is sometimes cited by journalists and opinion leaders, despite its being highly flawed. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that NARTH's "change" rates are inflated, that its definition of "cure" is purposely overbroad and that its chief spokesmen are viewed suspiciously within the psychoanalytic community.
Who and What Is NARTH?
NARTH describes itself as "a non-profit psychoanalytic, educational organization dedicated to research, therapy and prevention of homosexuality." Founded in 1992, NARTH claims to have about 500 members who are "psychoanalysts, psychoanalytically informed psychologists, certified social workers and other behavioral scientists, as well as laymen in fields such as law, religion and education."
Its chief public spokesmen are:
According to its policy statement, "NARTH's most important function is to provide psychological understanding of the cause, treatment, and behavior patterns associated with the homosexual condition."
NARTH begins its work with the presumption that homosexuality is a developmental disorder or a mental illness, which it frequently compares to alcoholism. It claims that "powerful political pressures have done much to erode scientific exploration and study of this disorder." It attempts to position its adherents as heroes swimming against the mighty tide of the brainwashed psychological community and the mainstream media.
This quote from a column Socarides entitled, "How America Went Gay" is telling:10
On May, 17, 1997, NARTH announced the results of a two-year study of 860 clients and their more than 200 psychologists and therapists. Some results:
One the biggest problems with research of this nature is it is not longitudinal; that is, it does not follow the sample over a long period of time to determine how permanent any changes in behaviors might be. And indeed, this oversight is inherent in all the "cure" claims of both the reparative therapists and the ex-gay ministers.11
It is worth noting that most reparative therapists claim they have no desire to "change" any gay person who does not himself wish to change. However, these therapists ignore and/or refuse to deal with the key reasons why some gay people wish to go straight, namely, the disapproval of society and the religious establishment. Despite what reparative therapists affiliated with NARTH may state,12 there is no empirical evidence that homosexuality per se is either an unhappy or unhealthy state of being.
These organizations selectively cite the Bible as proof that homosexuality is a sin, and attempt to "change" individuals' sexual orientations largely through prayer, meditation and programs that in some cases, are patterned on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and in others, have all the earmarks of a cult.
These groups are controversial even within Christian communities, and have been plagued over time by the "backsliding" into homosexuality of many of their leaders.13 To entice people into their programs, they promise to "cure" people of their homosexuality. What they may actually achieve, however, is far short of a change in sexual orientation. (As ex-ex-gay leader Rick Notch has put it, "You pick a prayer partner the first night of the convention, you pray with him the second night and by the third night, your prayers are answered.")
Reporter Justin Chin joined an ex-gay program affiliated with Exodus Ministries in California in 1995 as part of a project funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. His report was published in The Progressive, a left-wing political magazine:
"Ex-gays are sexually celibate but homosexuality is still central to them: Everything in their lives revolves around homosexuality and avoiding it. Listening to Exodus conference junkies and ex-program members speak, it is easy to see how this subculture is maintained.
"Ultimately, the difference between gays and ex-gays is like the difference between cheese and cheddar. The ex-gays try to drown their homosexuality in Bible verses, marriage, family, and their own new subcultural niche, but their homosexuality remains.
"Even the leaders of the movement have some doubts as to the validity of their claims to curing' homosexuality. Bob Davies and Lori Rentzal, in their book, Coming Out of Homosexuality, a classic in the ex-gay milieu, say that a change in sexual orientation is not the goal; the goal, rather, is to have an intimate relationship with Christ and to be transformed by him. It's disturbing to realize that these groups know that the best they can do is suppress a person's sexual orientation, and yet they hold out an entire industry catered to curing' homosexuality."14
Some of the leaders of these ex-gay ministries have gone on to become the most vocal and credible critics of ex-gay ministries, pointing up the folly of their promises. Many of the people who have gone through the programs say they don't work, and that they fail to deal with the root causes of many clients' unhappiness -- namely that society and many churches teach that homosexuality is abnormal and perverse and that it is not possible to be gay and live a fulfilled, happy life.
Exodus International, based in San Rafael, Calif., is an umbrella group that acts as a clearinghouse for people seeking referrals to programs in their local areas. It variously claims to have anywhere from 75 to 110 member ministries, with names like Straight Path Ministries, Cross Over, Breaking Free and Straight Ahead Ministries. To form a bona fide chapter, a ministry must be active for two years, and its directors -- if they were gay -- must have abstained from their "former lifestyle" for two years.
Exodus International is affiliated with the Protestant Christian belief system. In one of its pamphlets, "Exodus: A Way Out," it offers "Freedom from homosexuality, not through a method but a person, the Lord Jesus Christ!" It believes that only through total surrender to Christ can homosexuals hope to change into heterosexuals (although it does have special materials aimed at Catholics, Mormons and others). It offers a huge selection of educational items, including videotapes as well as audiotapes, and provides lectures on request. It also publishes a quarterly newsletter, "The Standard."
It was founded in 1976 by a group of people including Michael Bussee, who along with Gary Cooper, became one of the most infamous ex-gays in the movement's history. Bussee and Cooper became devout Christians in their late teens when both were troubled by their homosexuality. They met and became friends while working for a counseling and referral line at the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, Calif. As they worked together to "convert" gay people, they found themselves falling in love. Eventually, they became lovers and left Exodus in 1979. In 1982, they had a marriage ceremony. Cooper died of AIDS nine years later.
"The desires never go away," Bussee has said. "The confrontations begin and the guilt gets worse and worse." Bussee recalls that some people who went through the Exodus program had breakdowns or committed suicide. "One man slashed his genitals with a razor and poured Drano on his wounds." Another man impulsively underwent an incomplete sex-change operation because he believed his sexual desires might receive divine approval were he biologically a woman.15
"After dealing with hundreds of people," Bussee concluded, he and his partner hadn't "met one who went from gay to straight. Even if you manage to alter someone's sexual behavior, you cannot change their true sexual orientation."
"If you got them away from the Christian limelight," he said, "and asked them, 'Honestly now, are you saying that you are no longer homosexual and you are now heterosexually oriented?'... not one person said, 'Yes, I am actually now heterosexual.'"
The Exodus policy statement on homosexuality:
According to the 1994 PBS documentary "One Nation Under God," Exodus claims to have treated hundreds of thousands of homosexuals and boasts a success rate of 71.6 per cent. But Exodus keeps no follow-up records or statistics to validate the claim "although it's something we ought to be doing," a spokesperson told a Canadian newspaper. "People are always asking us for numbers."16
Some of the more prominent ex-gay ministries affiliated with Exodus:17
Transformation Ex-Gay Ministries/Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, or P-FOX, of Washington, D.C. Both were founded by Anthony Falzarano, a self-professed ex-gay who claims he was a gay prostitute and one of Roy Cohn's "kept boys" when he was younger. He also claims unequivocally that "homosexuality is certainly not innate. It is a learned behavior."18He frequently points to the fact that he was molested by his older brother as a reason that he became gay. And he claims -- without any substantiating factual evidence -- that "80 percent of homosexuals have been molested or raped as children."19
Falzarano, who is now married and has two children, is also a founder of the St. Augustine Sexual Healing Bookstore in Washington, D.C., which specializes in books about how gay people can change to heterosexuals.
P-FOX's website describes the group as "a Christ-centered network of the parents, friends and family of loved ones struggling with homosexuality. In order to restore families to wholeness, we support, educate and offer hope for counsel, and provide strategies on how to actively love the struggler and yet disagree with his or her lifestyle choice. We encouragingly support the work of the four Christian ex-gay networks and identify predominantly with Exodus International, of Seattle, Washington, which is the largest ex-gay network in the world."
The group's name is an intentional tweaking of the 68,000-member organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Falzarano has said he hopes to attract members of PFLAG who do not agree with the group's "pro-homosexuality stance" but who need the support.
Love in Action of Memphis, Tenn., was founded in 1973 by John Smid, who claims to be ex-gay. It was originally based in San Rafael, Calif., and, like most ex-gay ministries, is a rigidly controlled, live-in program for men.20
This is from a feature story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Sept. 28, 1997:
"At the center of Smid's approach is Love In Action's residentia treatment program, formerly located in three houses in the Bay Area, now concentrated in a six-bedroom farmhouse somewhere on the outskirts of Memphis -- he refuses to divulge its location -- where a clientele of about 10 men ranging in age from 21 to 50 live while they work to become formerly gay.
Most clients spend 13 to 18 months in the program, moving one step at a time through a five-phase program that begins with becoming open and honest about personal struggles and challenges' and culminates in encouraging other clients toward healing.'
"Financial aid is available for some clients who have entered the program but whose income won't support the $ 950-a-month fees. Supervised by a married couple who serve as house managers, residents drive their own cars to off-campus jobs they find on their own, have dinner every evening together at a big dining room table, then trek off most evenings to Central Church or the Love In Action office for counseling sessions led by two full-time and two part-time counselors. They take turns cooking meals, gather around a piano and sing hymns, play cards or read, indulging in what Smid and Johnson describe as a relaxing, homey atmosphere.
"The house is a safe place' that provides a structured environment for clients whose lives, typically, have been in turmoil, Smid said. Clients still in the first two phases of the program, which usually last six to seven months, aren't allowed to go anywhere alone. Nobody leaves the house without telling people where he's going. Other prohibitions: No television (although one video per week is allowed), no drugs, no alcohol."
One participant in Smid's program, Tom Ottosen, claimed it had all the earmarks of a cult. "Due to the fact that members are not allowed to question anything the hierarchy says, most members who were forced out or who have left on their own end up extremely guilt-ridden, very confused, dogged by the religious dogma given them by the groups, and most end up worse than ever before," he said.21
OTHER EX-GAY MINISTRIES:
Homosexuals Anonymous (formerly known as Quest)
Quest's onetime leader, Colin Cook, was ousted in 1987 for having sex with male counselees over the previous six years. During counseling sessions, Cook allegedly participated in "nude massages, erotic hugging and a few instances of mutual masturbation," according to a report by HA coordinator Dan Roberts. Indeed, leaders of Quest and Homosexuals Anonymous knew as early as 1985 that Cook was "slipping" but kept him on because he had become prominent in the ex-gay movement. 22
The purpose of H.A. is "to be a resource and support for individuals seeking freedom from homosexuality. Group support is available through weekly H.A. meetings. Guidance is received through the shared experiences and growth of others. Strength is acquired by training the faith responses through the 14 steps of H.A. "23
The only requirement to be a member is "a desire to be and remain free from homosexuality." "Homosexuals Anonymous members learn to see themselves not as another homosexual subculture but as God's children, created heterosexualy [sic], who are experiencing struggles with feelings of attraction towards the same sex, and who, by faith in God, may learn to experience freedom from those feelings as their identity is established in Him through Jesus Christ, and their needs are fulfilled in Him and in the community of believers that He has created." 24
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, Homosexuals Anonymous is decidedly Christian but non-denominational. It claims to be different from Exodus Ministries in a number of ways, including that its meetings are open and are not led by trained counselors. HA says it never charges fees. Its marketing methods are different in that Homosexuals Anonymous tries to promote itself directly to the gay and lesbian community through ads in local papers while Exodus focuses on presentations at local churches, tables at Promise Keepers events, and other Christian community outreach.
Courage, of New York, which bills itself as the "'official' lesbian and gay Catholic group," is actually an anti-gay organization that tries to persuade gay Catholics to abstain from homosexual sex. It, too, is modeled on the AA 12-step program.
Courage was founded by the Rev. John Harvey, a New York Catholic priest who was one of the first to offer sympathetic counseling to gay people. In the 1950s and 1960s it was common for Catholic priests to react angrily and with derision to gay people. Harvey's approach was much more sympathetic, and he accepted, in contrast to the long church insistence that homosexuality was just as matter of "acts," that homosexuality was an unchangeable "condition." Harvey was progressive, for his time. But he has refused to accept the legitimacy and reality of the gay community, and has always denied that gay relationships are acceptable.
Courage works on the assumption that homosexual behavior is bad, and that the only acceptable mode of life for gays and lesbians is sexual abstinence. Unlike the Protestant transformational ministries, Courage does not claim that gay people can be "changed." Nevertheless, some former members have said they were encouraged to attend "deprogramming" weekends in retreat houses outside New York City. Like the Protestant ex-gay ministries, Courage works on the presumption that homosexuality is a pathology, not a normal human variation.
The purveyors of "reparative therapy" are well outside mainstream research and thinking in the psychotherapeutic world. They rail constantly that their work is being subverted by the professional associations, which they claim were hijacked in the 1970s by activist gay members into removing homosexuality from the official lists of mental disorders.
We question how it could be that the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations -- the pre-eminent professional associations in their fields -- could have been held captive by these so-called gay activists by more than 20 years. Surely if there were clinical evidence that homosexuality per se were a mental illness, this information could not have been suppressed by so many bright minds for so long. In addition, the "reparative therapists" protest loudly and often that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual without empirical research. We submit that it was placed in the DSM originally without such evidence.
It is our studied belief that the purveyors of "reparative therapy" refuse to confront the underlying reasons for the apparent unhappiness of many of the gay people who seek their help. They presume that all gay people are mentally unwell, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of happy, well-adjusted, successful lesbians and gay men across this nation. At the same time, we believe that human sexuality is a deeply complicated phenomenon that we are not even close to fully understanding. Until then, people need the support of a concerned, non-judgmental psychotherapeutic establishment to find their own paths, whether they are hetero-, homo- or bisexual.
As for ex-gay ministries, our research found that many of them dangle impossible promises before troubled people in order to lure them into their programs. The clearest evidence that these programs are not effective are the "ex-ex gay" testimonials of people who once participated in them -- and the fact that so many of the most prominent ex-gay leaders returned to their former gay lives, only to be replaced by people who were never gay themselves and therefore cannot create new public relations disasters. Like the so-called reparative therapists, these ministries play to guilt and unhappiness that have their roots in something other than peoples' intrinsic sexual natures.