"Pray away the gay" joins other notable catchphrases in our popular culture and comedians' repertoires, (perhaps like "wide stance" did just a few years ago.) This time it's due to the efforts of Michele and Marcus Bachmann, who run a Christian counseling center practicing what is called "reparative therapy."
Skeptical thinkers may ask how a simple prayer could change people's core sexual orientation. Could heterosexual-oriented people "pray to be gay"? More seriously, why is there a treatment for something that is not an illness? A critical investigation into the practice of conversion therapy requires more serious scientific evidence than belief in the power of prayer alone.
Historically, some psychiatrists who viewed homosexuality as a mental illness tried electroshock aversion therapy as a cure. In more recent years, behavior modification became a less barbaric alternative. Endorsed mostly by religiously driven therapists to change sexual orientation, reparative or conversion therapy assumes that what needs to be repaired is an individual's homosexuality, not the social stigma contributing to that individual's negative feelings and behaviors. These ideas now are almost 40 years out-of-date.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder in its "bible," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Two years later the American Psychological Association, and later many other counseling, social work, and medical organizations, endorsed this revised view, leading almost all mental health organizations to oppose reparative therapy.
The American Psychological Association currently states "there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation."
Basing its position on scientific research and not anecdotal data, the American Psychological Association uncovered evidence demonstrating both harmful outcomes of conversion therapy and some helpful ones: "The benefits include social and spiritual support, a lessening of isolation, an understanding of values and faith and sexual orientation identity reconstruction. The perceived harms include negative mental health effects (depression and suicidality), decreased self-esteem and authenticity to others, increased self-hatred and negative perceptions of homosexuality; a loss of faith, and a sense of having wasted time and resources."
Yet, the association's conclusion stressed that these same benefits are equally achievable in affirmative psychotherapy models that avoid the harm attributed to attempts at changing sexual orientation.
Despite the conclusions of these scientific reports and statements by powerful professional organizations, repairing sexual orientation continues, and not just at Marcus Bachmann's counseling center. Joseph Nicolosi's National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality is the most visible and controversial group. This organization argues "it does far more harm than good to tell a teenager that his or her attractions toward members of the same sex are normal and desirable. Teens in this position need understanding and counseling, not a push in the direction of a potentially deadly lifestyle."
Critical thinkers may focus on words such as "normal," "deadly" and "lifestyle" to spot the biases and orientation of the treatment.
Although there aren't many recent scientifically rigorous studies demonstrating whether conversion therapy does or does not change sexual orientation, many studies from the 1970s showed that some individuals who were more bisexually oriented were able to ignore or limit their same-sex attraction. Remember that changing sexual attraction is not the same as changing sexual behavior, or vice versa. Consider prisoners who engage in same-sex sexual behavior while maintaining their heterosexual identity and opposite-sex attraction. Similarly, we can easily point to many homosexually oriented people who marry someone of the opposite sex to conceal their same-sex attractions, until they can no longer repress their behavior and get caught in a compromising public situation.
Close critical reading of reparative therapy treatment programs uncovers a confusion between gender and sexual orientation. Early attempts at reputable institutions endorsed the idea that homosexuality could be cured by reducing feminine traits and emphasizing masculine ones, often under the belief that an "absent father" was a central problem. This approach assumes gay men are feminine and lesbians are masculine, and ignores the many gays and lesbians who bonded with positive same-gender role models and engaged in gender-stereotyped behaviors. Interestingly, one of the key researchers in these gender-based studies was George Rekers, who was photographed in 2010 with a male escort. Rekers was one of the first researchers to investigate feminine and masculine traits among "sissy boys" and later became active in NARTH and the anti-gay Family Research Council (which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a "hate group").
Some recent media reports illustrate the damages it can take on individuals. Although not scientific studies, they make interesting reading for skeptics concerned about the efficacy of conversion therapy. A CNN investigation focused on the suicide of one of the reformed "sissy" boys in Rekers' published work, weakening one of the key claims of his research that such conversion is successful. And in May 2011 the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy unanimously found a psychotherapist guilty of professional malpractice for treating a patient for his homosexuality. The Christian Legal Centre defended the therapist, highlighting again the strong connection between reparative therapy and conservative religious beliefs.
Given that the majority of individuals seeking conversion today are, according to the American Psychological Association report, religious white males, there is reasonable concern among mental health advocates to seek affirmative integration of religious, psychological, cultural and sexual issues. But treating people who are religiously conflicted about their sexuality is not a license to practice possibly unethical and scientifically questionable therapy.
As we approach National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, join me in taking a critical stance on reparative therapies. Let's use our skeptical skills to ask the right questions about these negative practices and convert them into affirmative ones. Let's "pray away the homophobia."