U.K. Shrinks Reject ’Reparative Therapy’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 14, 2009

Most American mental health professionals view the idea that gays and lesbians can be "cured" with skepticism; now, their counterparts in the UK have expressed similar reservations.

An April 27 press release from a Gay and Lesbian Mental Health focus group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists; declares, "The Royal College shares the concern of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association that positions espoused by bodies like the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) in the United States are not supported by science.

"There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed," adds the release.

"Furthermore so-called treatments of homosexuality as recommended by NARTH create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish."

In the United States, so-called "reparative therapy," also known as "conversion therapy," has been decried by professional organizations dedicated to mental health concerns, including the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which struck homosexuality from its listing of mental disorders in 1973.

The release noted that in 1992 The International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization also struck homosexuality from its list of pathologies, marking an international consensus that gays and lesbians constitute a natural human sexual variation, rather than being victims of disease or deviance.

However, some religiously based organizations still promote the view that gays and lesbians are "disordered." The Catholic church has barred gays from entering seminaries, declaring that they do not enjoy a healthy ability to relate to persons of both genders.

Some groups, most of them religiously based, also promote the notion that through prayer and psychotherapy, gays and lesbians can "convert" themselves into heterosexuals.

While human sexuality may feature some degree of plasticity, especially in adolescents (who frequently go through a phase of sexual experimentation with, and attraction to, others of the same gender), most mental health professionals view homo- and heterosexuality as innate qualities of individuals.

One way of looking at human sexuality, espoused by the American sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, proposes that each individual falls somewhere on a "scale" of sexual orientation, the extremes of which exclude attraction to either the opposite gender or the same gender; in the middle, there is room for some degree of bisexuality.

Indeed, there is some evidence to show that at least some individuals identifying as gay or lesbian might refocus their sexual energies on the opposite sex; what is unclear is whether those individuals were innately, and essentially, gay or lesbian to begin with.

But what alarms GLBT equality advocates are attempts from religious and social conservatives to paint gays and lesbians as having "chosen" their sexuality--an argument that makes even many heterosexuals uncomfortable, because it suggests that straights could also have "chosen" to be gay.

Even so, the argument that sexuality is a choice is used repeatedly in efforts to deny gay and lesbian families and individuals equal access to rights and protections enjoyed by virtually every other demographic, including access to marriage rights.

The release stated, "The Royal College of Psychiatrists holds the view that lesbian, gay and bisexual people should be regarded as valued members of society who have exactly similar rights and responsibilities as all other citizens.

"This includes equal access to health care, the rights and responsibilities involved in a civil partnership, the rights and responsibilities involved in procreating and bringing up children, freedom to practice a religion as a lay person or religious leader, freedom from harassment or discrimination in any sphere and a right to protection from therapies that are potentially damaging, particularly those that purport to change sexual orientation."

Without the backing of scientific evidence to support the view that homosexuality is either a choice or a pathology, some religiously-based groups have launched public relations campaigns designed to suggest, or even claim outright, that gays are deviants who have made deviant choices.

In the United States, The National Organization for Marriage attacked family equality efforts with a widely derided ad in which actors portrayed heterosexual individuals expressing fear over a "storm" in which GLBT individuals would demand equal treatment before the law and--the group claimed--automatically trample the religious freedoms of heterosexuals in the process.

The ad relied on cases in which religious groups and individuals had come into conflict with state anti-discrimination laws and policies.

A six-minute anti-gay ad raised hackles, and drew jeers, in West Virginia and beyond last February for making similar claims, and for depicting a heterosexual couple and their children as being sited with a sniper-scope.

Around the same time, a paid hour-long advertisement called "Silencing the Christians" claimed that gay rights groups were allowed to demand their rights with rallies while similar demonstrations by Christians were targeted by authorities determined to "persecute" people of faith.

Earlier this year, a Michigan TV station declined to air that hour-long anti-gay ad, leading to condemnation from religious conservatives.

In Canada, a similar paid program was yanked from the airwaves after gay and lesbian groups complained to Canadian Television (CTV). The ad was produced by Life Productions, and made the claim that gays and lesbians can "choose" to become heterosexual.

The ad also made the claim that "many homosexuals don't want to be homosexual."

The commercial featured an "ex-gay" minister, John Westcott, whose Exchange Ministries promises gays that they can be "cured" of their "affliction."

In the commercial, which is half a minute long, Westcott delivers the following speech:

"You hear a lot about gay rights, gay marriage and the gay lifestyle being taught in our public schools for children, but what many people don't realize, and seldom hear, is that many homosexuals don't want to be homosexual.

"What many who are struggling with homosexuality don't realize, and seldom hear, is that they can change.

"I should know--for 13 years, I used to be one."

The ad was scheduled to run for a year, according to a March 10 article at anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews, but was pulled after three days.

CTV apologized for airing the ad (which was rated as "mature" and slotted to run after 9:00 p.m. by an outside agency), and claimed that its contents were not known to the company's officials.

Said Sarah Crawford, the Vice President of Public Affairs for CTV, "I assure you that had CTV known the content of the ad, it would not have gone to air."

Following complaints about the ad, Crawford said, "Station personnel then reviewed the ad, deemed it inappropriate for telecast and immediately pulled it off the air," the article reported.

LifeSiteNews.com noted that rival Facebook pages were set up, one decrying the ad's claims and the other demanding the return of the ad.

The article carried a quote from the head of Life Productions, Jason Johns, who said, "The commercial doesn't promote hate. It doesn't promote discrimination. It promotes knowledge, and information."

Johns also denied that gays and lesbians were harmed by the ad, saying, "What we were doing was reaching out to, and educating people that there is a community of people who practice homosexuality that are not interested in practicing homosexuality, in that they want help."

The LifeSiteNews article cited science only to claim that "no scientific evidence" supports the hypothesis that homosexuality is an innate characteristic from birth for some people.

However, homosexuality has been noted well over 1,000 animal species other than human beings, including birds, insects, and other mammals.

And brain scientists have found tantalizing clues that indicate that gay and lesbian brains are physiologically different from those of heterosexuals: in one recent study in Sweden neurologists discovered that the brains of gay men are more like the brains of straight women than of straight men.

Similar results were discovered when the researchers used medical scanning to observe the workings of lesbians' brains, which operate similarly to those of heterosexual men.

Indeed, the debate over whether physiological differences between gays and straights are authentic--and meaningful--has raged since Dr. Simon LeVay's 1991 paper "A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure Between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men" was first published in the journal "Science."

The paper documented LeVay's discovery that, on average, gay men had a smaller cluster of specialized neurons in their hypothalamuses than did heterosexual men.

Subsequent research has offered other indications that brain physiology may indeed account for the deep-seated and spontaneous feelings of same-sex attraction that gays and lesbians experience.

The fact that gays and lesbians exist in similar numbers across all nationalities, ethnicities, and other demographic divides, further indicates that homosexuality is a naturally-occurring and species-wide phenomenon.

However, the question of human sexuality is a large one, and specifics are still hard to pin down. Johns postulated that a population does exist that wish to--and can--alter their deep-seated feelings of sexual attraction for members of their own gender.

Johns condemned the ad's removal from the airwaves on their behalf, saying, "What about these people who want help, who the commercial was actually for?"

Added Johns, "I'm concerned about our freedom of speech as well."

Johns went on, "If our freedom of speech is jeopardized, if it's taken away, then who can advocate for these people?

"According to the pro-gay activists, no one is allowed to advocate for them. And I think that that's where the real dictatorship and discrimination comes in."

Johns fell back on the long-used claim that GLBT equality proponents are largely "intolerant" of dissenting views, saying, "They accuse us of hating, they accuse us of being haters, and discrimination. That's just not true.

The article claimed that Johns had received threatening email messages.

"We retain the e-mails that they do send us, because that's evidence of where the real hatred and where the real discrimination exists," said Johns.

While some in the GLBT equality camp would argue that gays and lesbians who are miserable about their sexuality are only unhappy because of the legal and social attacks to which the GLBT community is subjected, Johns sought to reverse that viewpoint, claiming instead that those whose homosexuality makes them unhappy are intimidated by other gays into hesitating to accept a "cure" and to "convert" to heterosexuality.

Claimed Johns, "There's a lot of fear and a lot of intimidation imposed by the pro-gay community, that I would think that anyone who claims to be homosexual and wants to get help, I think that in that sort of environment they would not feel comfortable voicing their opinion or their concern because of the response that they would get."

The article noted that Life Productions offers no counseling services itself to those wishing to "convert" to heterosexuality, offering referrals instead.

But the effectiveness of such therapies, and even their ethics, are still in question. A Wikipedia entry on the subject listed an array of techniques that have been employed in attempts to "convert" gays, including "behavior modification, aversion therapy, psychoanalysis, primal therapy, Bioenergetics, reparative therapy, hysterectomy, ovariectomy, clitoridectomy, castration, pudic nerve section, lobotomy, hormone treatment, pharmacologic shock treatment, treatment with sexual stimultants and depressants, the reduction of aversion to heterosexuality, electroshock treatment, group therapy, rational emotive therapy, and hypnosis."

The article went on to note that, "Mainstream American medical and scientific organizations have expressed concern over the practice of conversion therapy and consider it potentially harmful."

Not even all "ex-gays" claim to be heterosexual: while some report a satisfying life of heterosexuality after having "left behind" their gay impulses, others report that they continue to "struggle" with their own spontaneous and naturally-occurring emotions regarding members of their own gender, with a form of sexual suppression, or asexuality, being the end result.

What is murky about such reports is whether those who say they have "converted" were ever gay to begin with, or whether they are bisexual, and thus genuinely able to direct their interest toward one gender or the other.

What's more, the "ex-gay" movement has proven so controversial that there is even a counter-movement of former "ex-gays," or "ex-ex-gays," as it were.

One of the leading opponents of the "ex-gay" movement is Wayne Besen, author and head of the group Truth Wins Out, which counters groups dedicated to the "ex-gay" movement such as Love Won Out, which is affiliated with the anti-gay group Focus on the Family.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.