So-called “ex-gay” therapies, frequently referred to as reparative or conversion therapies, are indelibly controversial.
Theoretically, such therapies are designed to “transform” one’s sexual orientation through counseling, behavioral modification programs or other reconditioning processes. The practices, however, have been discredited by a number of organizations, including the American Psychological Association, which, in 2009, released an official statement saying the practices are both “unlikely to be successful” and “involve some risk of harm.”
In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association released a similar statement, opposing therapies that addressed homosexuality as a mental disorder, with an assumption that people can alter their sexual orientation.
A host of other professional organizations -- among them, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Pediatric Association -- have also been critical of sexual reorientation therapies.
A majority of such programs are either founded or sponsored by religious organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church-endorsed Courage International and the recently disbanded, Focus on the Family-backed Love Won Out. These therapies, however, do have their secular proponents, including former American Psychological Association President Nicholas Cummings, who in a recent USA Today piece, claimed to have encountered hundreds of patients who “successfully” changed their sexual orientations from gay to straight.
Recently, the matter has become a heated legislative issue, with California becoming the first state in the nation to bar sexual orientation therapies for patients 18 and younger. A similar measure was approved by legislators in New Jersey earlier this summer, with Gov. Chris Christie signing the bill into state law in August.
The issue of conversion therapy is divisive. Proponents claim the therapies have been slandered and vilified by “homofascist” outfits, while opponents cite the programming as ineffective, pseudo-scientific and likely to cause long-term emotional damage. Recently, Uncommon Journalism spoke with individuals both championing and decrying the therapies, including several individuals who say they went through “gay reparative” programming themselves.
“The reality is, nobody is born gay,” said Douglas McIntyre, executive director of the Houston-based Homosexuals Anonymous Fellowship Services (HA), a Christian group “dedicated to serving the recovery needs of men and women who struggle with unwanted same sex attraction,” according to the group’s website. HA has international affiliates in Germany and New Zealand. McIntyre is a proponent of “ex-gay” reparative therapies, claiming that he successfully altered his sexual orientation from homosexual to straight through extensive counseling.
“I come from a background, where if anybody could be considered ‘born gay,' I would probably be it.” McIntyre said. “And with my background, I chose not to stay in that position.”
McIntyre co-founded HA in 1980, alongside Colin Cook, a much embattled former Seventh day Adventist pastor who resigned from the organization after an investigation revealed that he had engaged in sexual activities with program participants.
McIntyre believes most reparative systems falter because the participants are either involuntarily placed in such programs, or the individuals do not desire a “transformation” in their sexual orientation.
“We believe in total free choice,” he said. “If you want help, help is available. If you don’t want help, don’t waste my time nor yours.”
McIntyre’s organization, classified as a 501(c)3 since its inception more than 30 years ago, is currently under review. McIntyre said the scrutiny is due to the organization’s name change and relocation for Reading, Penn. “The IRS is reviewing most ministries now due to abuse from some sectors,” McIntyre stated. “I have no doubt that our designation will be settled soon.”
McIntyre said many of the allegations of wrongdoings at reparative sessions are either exaggerated or completely fabricated. He is especially critical of California’s recent legislation, which effectively outlawed the practice of gay reparative therapy with young patients. “The whole premise has been misinterpreted,” McIntyre said. “And now the law states that, as a pastor or a counselor, you cannot even tell a young person that change is possible.”
He stressed that HA does not provide therapy sessions for Homosexual Anonymous participants. Rather, the organization, he said, is a “steps”-oriented program that operates under a group-meeting model. The structure and even some of the program tenets, he said, are borrowed from the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook.
“The principle is, you get together with people who have the same problem, and have the same goal,” he said. “You want out, you don’t want to do this anymore and you support each other.”
Many of the participants in Homosexuals Anonymous, he said, have “believed a lie that’s been propagated through the public school system to the point that everybody believes it.” Currently, the youngest participant he works with is 16. “I don’t mix the age groups completely,” he said. “I separate them out so the youngsters are dealing with youngsters, and oldsters are dealing with oldsters.”
Some program participants are enrolled for months, and others, he said, have been attending group meetings for years. McIntyre said he had no official data on the program’s alleged “success rate,” in terms of converting homosexuals into heterosexuals, but claimed that he rarely received negative feedback form former participants: “I very seldom, if ever, have somebody call me up and say ‘I hated the meeting and I’m going with the lifestyle and you’re all crazy.’”
“All This Therapy is Talk Therapy”
Greg Quinlan, president of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), said he grew up in an abusive home. His first same-sex encounter, he recalled, was a welcome reprieve from his father’s beatings. “I was getting something I wasn’t getting at home, I wasn’t getting at school and I wasn’t getting at church,” he said. “I got affection, I got approval and I got affirmation. Somebody was touching me without hitting me, somebody was talking to me without screaming at me and calling me names.”
Quinlan came out as a gay man in the early 1980s. At the time, he was a licensed practical nurse. Amid the emerging AIDS epidemic, he said he witnessed more than 100 of his friends and acquaintances die before he simply stopped counting. As “an out and active homosexual,“ he said he joined the Human Rights Campaign Fund; working in Dayton, Ohio, he said he raised “tens of thousands of dollars” for the activist organization.
About 20 years ago, however, Quinlan said he abandoned homosexuality. His two primary motivators, he recalled, were a pervasive unhappiness with the lifestyle, in tandem with personal research that he said dispelled a biological explanation for homosexuality.
“If I don’t have to be gay,” he recollected, “then I don’t want to be gay, and sought my own way out.”
Quinlan described PFOX as an education and advocacy organization for parents regarding “the fact that ex-gays do exist.” He said the group also preaches a message that mothers and fathers can love children who have “chosen a homosexual lifestyle” without breaking up family bonds.
“I have met so many people in the homosexual lifestyle, as I was as a homosexual, who were unhappy,” he said. “They thought they were stuck. They thought they were born that way.” He said that PFOX is focused on “exposing a lie,” and informing people that, if they choose, they can also change their sexual orientation.
“There are others who actually want to be gay,” Quinlan said. “Great fine, do that, that’s up to you, it’s your right…but do not deny someone else their right, and do not deny people the full information that you aren’t born that way.”
Homosexuality, Quinlan, believes, is a choice. Citing “100 years worth” of peer-reviewed scientific literature, he argued that not only is homosexuality not innate, but a condition that has traceable causes that can be effectively treated via reparative therapies.
All therapies, he said, are reparative. “When a client comes to a counselor, and people come to me as a minister, they’re coming because of an issue in their life,” Quinlan said.
Ex-gay programs, he said, do not make use of “torture camps” or “electroshock therapies.” He said that many lies are propagated about such therapies, by politically-motivated opponents he considered guilty of “homofascism.”
“It’s what I call the political Marxism to demand their way and only their way,” Quinlan explained.
Homosexuality, he believes, is a developmental gender-identity disorder. He also considers same-sex attraction to be a cultural construct “which can be deconstructed,” pending a person wants to alter his or her sexuality.
“All this therapy is talk therapy,” Quinlan concluded. “And in the talking, you discover where people are coming from, what’s going on in their lives [and] the background of what’s happened to them.”
“I’ve Seen the Damage They’ve Done to People”
Others, however, believe that sexual identity is not a choice, and attempts to “transform” one’s orientation via therapy is not only pseudo-scientific, but potentially dangerous.
Like Douglas McIntyre, Jerry Stephenson -- at the time, a Southern Baptist minister living in Florida -- participated in an “ex-gay” therapy program. In his late 20s, Stephenson joined Worthy Creations, a ministry based out of Fort Lauderdale that promoted both homosexual conversion and reparative therapies.
Conversion therapies, Stephenson said, were mostly rooted in religious messages. “If you gave your life to Christ, and then you realized that homosexuality was a sin, then God would change you,” he said. “You’d be able to change it, through bible study, prayer, all of those things.”
Reparative therapies, Stephenson said, were mostly anchored around addressing family issues. “Something’s wrong with your family, and it usually was the father wasn’t around [or] loving, and the mother was domineering,” he added.
Stephenson recalled: “It was basically a time where [the group] would open with a prayer, you would do some singing, there would be some scripture reading and then, usually somebody that had been with the group for awhile would share their stories and their experiences.”
Afterwards, Stephenson said participants would break into gender-separated groups to discuss recent struggles. The meetings, he said, were always coupled with more scripture readings and prayer.
After being asked to resign from a teaching position once his university found out he was involved in ex-gay programming, he relocated to Key West and assumed an associate pastor position at a new ministry. There, he wanted to start his own homosexual support group. “That’s really where I basically woke up,” he recalled. “I spent three and a half years in the movement until I came to the realization that it wasn’t working.”
A counselor for 25 years, Stephenson said he’s seen conversion or reparative therapies and the like do extensive harm to many individuals. “I’ve seen the damage they’ve done to people,” he said. “Emotionally, and also spiritually.”
Many LGBT youth, Stephenson said, simply want acceptance from their churches, families and friends. The therapies, he said, put young people on an “emotional roller coaster,” in which they are constantly questioning their own worth as Christians. The end result for some young people, he said, was frequently suicide.
“The great thing we have here in south Florida is gay community centers, and we have a lot of support for gay youth,” he said. “We have churches down here that are evangelical, bible-believing churches they can get involved in also, and find support and help.”
Citing numerous studies, such as reports exploring the sexual orientation of twins and how increased estrogen levels may affect a child before birth, Stephenson believes there is “definitely a genetic link” between biology and same-sex attraction.
“I didn’t wake up one day to become a homosexual,” Stephenson said. “I grew up in a heterosexual society, I went to heterosexual schools…it wasn’t something I learned.”
“Nothing But Malpractice”
Wayne Besen is the founder and executive director of Truth Wins Out, a 501(c)3 organization that began in 2006 when, as part of a push for the Marriage Protection Act, the then-president of Exodus International -- a recently disbanded organization that, at the time, was one of the world’s largest “ex-gay” ministries -- was invited to the White House.
“We said that, ‘you know, if the ex-gay message has reached levels this high,’” Besen said, “‘we really need to stand up and do something about it.’”
In 2003, Besen authored a book titled “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.” He said that many organizations that deny a biological root to homosexuality are “scientifically illiterate.” Sexual orientation, Besen said, was a combination of biological influences, which are further influenced by genes. “We already discovered Xq28,” Besen said, “you can look at the brains of gay people, and they’re different.”
Besen provided a lengthy list of therapies and other practices, ranging from the implantation of “straight” testes into gay men to ministries that endorse “pillow punching” exercises, that have been promoted as “cures” for homosexuality.
Besen said he spent about a year speaking with scientists, as part of research for a new website chronicling LGBT research: “I’ve spoken to top scientists across the country that actually do this work,” he said. “They got real degrees, from real schools, not like Liberty University.”
Besen said conversion therapy is a catchall for the numerous forms of “ex-gay” practices, with reparative therapy serving as a more family issues-focused subset. “It’s not real therapy,” he said. “It’s an explanation to harm gay people that’s really hijacking medical language to inflict harm and shame people.” Besen considers such therapies to constitute a form of malpractice. “If you begin deliberately misdiagnosing your clients for ideological reasons, it can be nothing but malpractice,” he added.
He also criticized “ex-gay” therapies for having wide variability in program practices. “What happens in most modern reparative therapy is they sit you down and try to find the roots of your homosexuality,” Besen said. “It’s kind of ‘make-it-up as you go along.’” The programs, he said, ultimately do nothing more than turn LGBT youth into “actors” playing roles so they can better fit in.
Besen was especially critical of some program practices, including therapies that mandated participants to draw up “masturbation inventories.”
“It’s very weird,” he said. “I think if most people knew exactly what reparative therapy was, they wouldn’t support it.”
Researching the “effectiveness” of ex-gay therapies is difficult, Besen said, because oftentimes, only the programs themselves have access to clients. “We have to find them after they drop out to talk to people about their experiences,” he said.
The impact of such therapies on young people is negative but fluctuates in severity, Besen said, with some youths considering their experiences embarrassing but uneventful, while others may report permanent scarring.
“They always feel this voice of the reparative therapist in the back, when they should be having a nice time” he said, “telling them that there’s something wrong with them, that they’re defective, that they’re not whole human beings.”
The feelings of unworthiness, Besen said, sometimes last an entire lifetime.
“It’s a form of shock,” he said. “They’re completely traumatized.”
While Besen does not believe that reparative therapies can turn homosexual youth “straight,” he does believe the programs excel at making LGBT youth feel bad about themselves.
“For every hour people spend in reparative therapy,” Besen concluded, “there’s several hours spent in real therapy trying to get over the reparative therapy experience."
Uncommon Journalism, 2013.