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Is It Possible to Pray the Gay Away?

Too many mental health professionals believe homosexuality is curable.

The revelations surrounding Marcus Bachmann's psychotherapy practice along with his statements equating gay people to barbarians reflect the deeply held view among too many people that homosexuality is a psychological or moral choice that can be altered and indeed should be.

As someone who professes to help gays and lesbians become "straight," Dr. Bachmann is unfortunately not alone. There are several conservative religious organizations, like Exodus International and Homosexuals Anonymous, that claim to have helped people change their sexual orientation through prayer, counseling, or a combination of both.

Moreover, there are licensed mental health professionals who practice what are called reparative or conversion therapies designed to make gay people heterosexual. The best-known group of such clinicians is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), led by psychologist Joseph Nicolosi. He and his followers claim that gays and lesbians suffer from a damaging blend of childhood trauma, shaming in their families of origin, and chronic unmet needs for love and affection from their same-sex parents. Reparative therapy supposedly helps gay clients become heterosexual by working with them to ameliorate toxic feelings stemming from their damaged childhoods.

Robert Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist who, oddly enough, led the charge to remove homosexuality as a disease from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, had undertaken research with 200 women and men who underwent reparative therapy and believed themselves to be "cured" of homosexuality, as evidenced by their ability to engage in sexual relations with the opposite sex, marry heterosexually, and conceive children. But is this really a cure? Spitzer found that well after the treatment ended, many of the respondents still had feelings of attraction to members of their sex.

And these findings are not unique. Despite reports of individuals submitting themselves to reparative therapy and subsequently getting married and having children, there is no evidence that this treatment permanently changes people's attractions to their own sex. In fact, there are many reports of people undergoing treatments offered by ex-gay ministries who not only return to homosexuality but have also been traumatized by this so-called therapy. It is not uncommon for survivors of these programs to wind up permanently emotionally scarred and at times, even suicidal.

The real diseases are homophobia and heterosexism, not homosexuality.

It is important to recognize that the great majority of psychotherapy professionals argue vociferously that such "treatment" is unethical because homosexuality is not an illness — rather the "illness" is our intolerance of sexual and gender behaviors falling outside restrictive societal norms.

Further, many professional organizations to which mental health practitioners belong, such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, consider such treatment unethical, and its practitioners risk censure as well as suspension or revocation of their licenses.

On the few occasions I have been asked about conversion therapy by my clients, I tell them that I agree with the conclusions of my own professional organization (NASW). I also tell clients that reparative and conversion therapies, besides being ineffective, are psychologically harmful to gays and lesbians, which is another reason I do not recommend them and will not assist clients in procuring such treatment.

People like Marcus and Michele Bachmann believe that accepting and even celebrating gay and lesbian people will inevitably lead to the moral decline of our society. I would argue that a presidential candidate who signs a pledge glorifying heterosexual marriage that contains gross historical inaccuracies and thus glorifies an aspect of slavery would, in fact, do much greater harm.