I knew something was wrong when the retreat guide pulled out a baseball bat.
A young man—let’s call him Tony— had just shared a bad memory with our small group of men as we stood inside a ranch cabin in northern Arizona. When he was a kid, Tony explained, he tried to get his dad’s attention while he read the newspaper. Dad pushed him away.
When Tony finished the story, the guide explained that all these years Tony had been carrying around the emotional baggage his dad heaped on him that day. The newspaper was more important than his son, and this was part of the “father wound”—an uncaring, distant father—that made Tony gay.
The guide said it was time to get rid of the father wound. He had Tony kneel down in front of another man pretending to read a newspaper. After a punching bag was slipped between them, Tony was given the bat and told to pretend to beat his father to death.
This happened on day two of Journey into Manhood, a 48-hour retreat designed to help several dozen men overcome unwanted “same-sex attraction.” I was there undercover, a straight man investigating so-called “ex-gay” therapies. By that afternoon in 2009, I had already spent a year looking into ex-gay ministries, including a support group in a San Jose church and a conference in Mountain View.
Ex-gay programs, the vast majority connected to conservative Christian denominations, subscribe to a developmental model of homosexuality: Emotional wounds from childhood cause men and women to become gender-confused, which leads them to cannibalize their God-given gender identity by having same-gender sex.
Sound bogus? It should. The theories driving ex-gay programs have been rejected by just about every major professional mental health organization. But that hasn’t prevented pastors, preachers, parents, “life coaches,” let alone licensed mental health professionals, from pushing ex-gay therapies, also known as “reparative” therapy or sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), on confused or misled youth and adults.
“Closeted, highly religious LGBT clients are often plagued by deep shame and fear. When they reach out for help, they usually turn to someone within their religious community such as a pastoral counselor or therapist,” says Lisa Maurel, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who opposes therapy designed to change someone’s sexual orientation. “Too often, because this professional adheres to the myths of SOCE, they reinforce stereotypes and shame binding messages about sexuality to a client who is already vulnerable and afraid.”
Ex-gay programs started in the 1970s. They formed as a Christ-centered response to the growing gay rights movement. In 1973, the same year that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Love in Action—the first ex-gay ministry—formed in San Rafael.
Today, several major ex-gay umbrella groups exist, but they have trouble agreeing on their techniques. For example, as part of the weekend retreat I attended, guides had us practice “healing-touch” therapy: I sat on the floor between the outstretched legs of one man and leaned back against his chest while other men placed their hands on my arms and legs. (This position was called “The Motorcycle.”) But in a policy statement, the largest ex-gay umbrella group, Exodus International, opposes “the therapeutic practice commonly referred to as ‘holding/touch therapy’ as a healing exercise for those with same-sex attraction distress. Perhaps they find it counter-productive to their goals.
On Tuesday, the California Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB 1172 to go before the full Senate sometime in June. The bill would ban psychotherapists from practicing SOCE on minors and require mental health professionals to provide adults seeking SOCE a disclosure on the risk of harm, as well as obtain that client’s informed consent.
“Under the guise of a California license, some therapists are taking advantage of vulnerable people by pushing dangerous sexual orientation-change efforts,” says bill author Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). “These bogus efforts have led in some cases to patients later committing suicide, as well as severe mental and physical anguish. This is junk science and it must stop.”
The policy changes in the mental health community towards gay and lesbians took several decades. In the late 1950s, the psychiatric community considered homosexuality a mental illness. With anti-sodomy laws on the books in many states, gay men and lesbians were forced to live closeted lives, so the only time mental health professionals came into contact with gay clients was when that client was incarcerated or receiving treatment for some other mental health issue.
But in 1957, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, a researcher at UCLA, published the results of a simple experiment that challenged the idea of homosexuality being a mental illness. In her experiment, Hooker took a group of exclusively gay men and exclusively straight men and had all her subjects complete a series of psychological examinations. She handed the results to three other experts and asked them to pick which profiles belonged to gay men and which ones belonged to straight. The experts couldn’t tell the difference. Conclusion: Gay men are just as well-adjusted as straight men.
Hooker’s study was the first of its kind. But committees make major decisions at mental health organizations, and it takes time for enough research to pile up to challenge accepted theories.
In 2007, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) convened a task force to examine stacks of studies to determine the effectiveness of reparative therapy. Three years later, after the task force completed its work, the APA issued a statement that it “opposes any psychiatric treatment such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder.”
Now SB 1172 aims to bring the state’s mental health practitioners in line with decades of scientific research.
“For decades, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people—particularly youth—have suffered psychological abuse by those who are entrusted to care for their emotional and psychological well-being,” says Clarissa Filgioun, Equality California Board President, which sponsored SB 1172. “It’s long past time to do everything in our power to put an end to the use of therapy tactics that have no sound scientific basis and that cause lifelong damage.”
One of the most disturbing parts about attending ex-gay ministries was watching normal, happy, healthy people be convinced that something was deeply wrong with them. When a Christian counselor visited our support group in San Jose, one young man raised his hand and asked why he struggled with same-sex attraction when he had a strong, loving relationship with his parents.
The counselor told him his same-sex attraction was evidence that his upbringing probably wasn’t as good as he thought.
Ted Cox is a freelance writer and touring speaker. His free presentation—“My Time at Straight Camp”—is scheduled for 2:30pm Saturday at the Student Union at San Jose State University.