The dangers of conversion therapy

Posted on 03 Nov 2011 at 6:44pm

Southern Poverty Law Center, Truth Wins Out join forces to shine a light into the darkness of those who try to change others’ orientation

Imagine being told your lifetime of thoughts and feelings were unacceptable, and that what you think and feel in the future would need to be remolded to conform to what others consider acceptable.

That’s the reality of conversion therapy, an unscientific methodology rooted in conservative Christian philosophy that is designed to reorient homosexuality to heterosexuality.

Conversion therapy is condemned by all major medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling groups. Yet fundamentalist religious leaders advocate its widespread practice to “cure” homosexuality. They recommend this treatment for both adults and for gay and lesbian teenagers, who are often forced into the therapy against their will.

Opposition to conversion therapy is strong in the LGBT community, and it gained even more momentum recently when the Southern Poverty Law

Center and Truth Wins Out joined forces to launch a coordinated campaign to counter proponents of the controversial therapy.

David-Webb

David Webb - The Rare Reporter

The prestigious civil rights group — SPLC — and the LGBT rights organization — TWO — scheduled a series of community meetings in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., for former patients of the therapy to share their stories. One of the campaign’s goals is to seek help from community activists and elected leaders in monitoring and evaluating local conversion therapy programs.

For most people, the notion of conversion therapy achieving any measure of success would probably be laughable if it were not so destructive to those who are exposed to it. Critics of the therapy warn that individuals who undergo it often suffer anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts — in addition to retaining their sexual orientation.

The radical therapy is reminiscent of unscrupulous scientific experiments from previous decades that horrified the world when they came to light. In those events groups of scientists in the U.S. and other countries carried out hideous psychological and medical experiments using as their subjects prisoners, orphans, mental patients, minorities and other powerless people.

Through my work as a journalist I have met several individuals over the years that underwent conversion therapy. Without exception, all reported the therapy caused them more anguish than they felt before receiving it.

One person — who was raised by a domineering, Bible-obsessed mother — was sent from his East Coast home when he was in his 20s to a conversion therapy treatment program in, of all places, San Francisco, the gay capital of the U.S. It’s not difficult to figure out what happened there.

The group of like-minded individuals in the program reportedly had the time of their life when the lights went out at night, and at one point they went over the wall to see the sights of Baghdad on the Bay.

Again, the lack of logic is humorous, but the therapy left the young man and his family, which had expected him to return home “cured,” more troubled than ever.

In subsequent years he engaged in the abuse of alcohol and illegal substances, promiscuity and criminal activity.

His mother drifted into a state of denial and, even though her son contracted the HIV virus, she maintained that he did not engage in sex with other men.

The last I heard, the man was still allowing his mother to run his life, which she has dedicated to ensuring would not include the company of a male partner.

In another case, a man in his 30s sought help from a counselor whose facility was located on the campus of a large mainstream church. Placing his trust in the counselor — in part because he supposedly was a straight, married man — the patient participated in a bizarre treatment program that involved the patient removing his clothes during the sessions. The “treatment” eventually progressed to the counselor instructing the patient to perform oral sex upon him.

Eventually, the patient came to his senses, reported the counselor to law enforcement officials and filed a lawsuit against him. The patient suffered severe psychological problems as a result of the contact with the counselor, but he recovered through the help of a traditional counselor who helped him accept his sexual orientation.

The last time I heard from the patient he was attempting to get on with his life as a gay man and had met someone with whom he was trying to bond.

The files of Truth Wins Out are full of stories of unscrupulous conversion therapists who masquerade as professional counselors, when in fact they are what the organization’s founder, Wayne Besen, refers to as “quacks.”

Besen has also cornered advocates of conversion therapy who claim to be “ex-gay” in gay bars and exposed others as frauds because they still engage in homosexual activity.

The influence of the powerful Southern Poverty Law Center — which is best known for its work in waging successful legal fights against violent white supremacist groups — will likely help Besen spread his message to an audience that he might not have otherwise reached. The nonprofit group’s Teaching Tolerance project has received high praise for its outreach.

As regards religious leaders who recommend conversion therapy, they are doing neither the individuals nor their families any favors. Coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation — for both gay men and lesbians and their family members — is challenging enough without the interference of religious leaders who apparently are less concerned with the welfare of the individual than they are in demanding observance of antiquated religious laws.

For gays or lesbians attempting to deny their sexual orientation, it might be useful to learn a lesson from the legions of people who have already struggled with the same issue and finally came to realize that a person’s basic nature cannot be transformed.                                              •

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

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