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Sexual Orientation

"Curing" Homosexuality

Reparative therapy and the politics of ex-gay ministries.

The recent storm of controversy surrounding the husband of Michele Bachmann, Republican presidential contender, and whether his Christian ministries try to "cure" homosexuality, has brought welcome attention to ex-gay ministries and the reparative therapy they claim can change a person's sexual orientation.

A powerful article in The Nation last month, "Michele Bachmann's Husband's Clinics Practiced Ex-Gay Therapy (While Pocketing $161,000 of Your Tax Money)," drew on reports from Marcus Bachmann's patients and footage of group counseling they were given to underscore just how close the Bachmanns' relationship is to the wider ex-gay movement and the so-called reparative therapy on which it draws very heavily. As Mariah Blake notes in the article, "Marcus Bachmann, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, owns two Christian counseling centers in Minnesota ... which have received $161,000 in state and federal funding.... Information obtained by The Nation suggests that Bachmann & Associates therapists do, in fact, try to change sexual orientation. It also sheds new light on the Bachmanns' embrace of the controversial ex-gay movement and related psychological approaches [that] try to cure homosexuality." The scale of the controversy rapidly escalated, Blake adds, after comments by Marcus Bachmann surfaced last month likening gays to "barbarians" who "need to be educated" and "disciplined." Let that pass for now.

The article draws on one of Bachmann's former patients, Andrew Ramirez, as well as from John Becker, an investigative journalist at Truth Wins Out, who says he was "repeatedly assured" by one of Bachmann's therapists "that homosexuality could be overcome. At the core value ... in terms of how God created us, we're all heterosexual," the therapist is represented as explaining on Becker's footage. "God has created you for heterosexuality."

As Blake points out, "Most professional psychologists view reparative therapy skeptically, to say the least. In 2007 the American Psychological Association assembled a task force to study the effectiveness of this approach. After spending two years sifting through the available research—it evaluated eighty-three studies dating back to 1960—the group concluded that there was scant evidence that sexual orientation could be changed. What's more, it found that attempting to do so could cause depression and suicidal tendencies among patients. Based on these findings, in 2009 the APA voted to repudiate reparative therapy by a margin of 125 to 4."

In the States, nonetheless, the most powerful political group to embrace the ex-gay movement is the Christian Right, partly because such ministries represent themselves as pro-family. Never mind that in practice their thinking can lead followers to denounce their own son or daughter as an "abomination," as one of Bachmann's patients was called by his father.

Political links between Republicans and the ex-gay movement are also well-established and enduring. As Blake reports in The Nation, "In 2005, Marcus Bachmann gave a presentation called 'The Truth About the Homosexual Agenda' at the Minnesota Pastors' Summit, a gathering of conservative religious leaders designed to build support for anti-gay marriage legislation. According to Curt Prins, a Minneapolis marketing consultant who was in attendance, Bachmann first offered his professional assessment that same-sex attraction was an affliction that could be rooted out."

Elsewhere in the world, it may surprise the same conservatives to learn, reparative therapy has far-stronger ties to the type of Stalinist thinking, ranging from Moscow to Castro's Cuba, that led many countries to denounce homosexuality as a social evil or "delincuencia," a social pathology/crime that reparative therapy supposedly could cure. Indeed, in passing very recently through Ecuador, South America, I was astonished and appalled to learn that in and around Quito, the nation's attractive capital, there are no less than 300 clinics "dedicados a ‘curar' la enfermedad de la homosexualidad"—dedicated to "curing" the "illness" or "disorder" of homosexuality, their own literature brags.

In his excellent article "‘Curar' la homosexualidad," appearing on the op-ed page of Ecuador's prestigious El Universo, Ricardo Tello Carrión warns that in his country, the "tendency to believe that homosexuality is a sickness seems to have increased," not diminished, over the years: "la tendencia a creer que la homosexualidad es una enfermedad parece haber crecido" (August 18, 2011). And that's after Ecuador's recent (and still partial) decriminalization of homosexuality in 1997, before which consenting adults were liable to receive four-to-eight years' imprisonment.

It gets worse and more bizarre. Carrión reports that Ecuador's decision partially to decriminalize homosexuality came only after a scandal came to light involving several policemen. Shortly after the winner of a gay contest was arrested as a "delincuente" or "criminal" in 1997, the man, Pedro, was raped in turn by each of the policemen involved in arresting him--"fue violado una y otra vez. Lo violaron hasta el amanecer": they took turns raping him until dawn, Carrión reports.

That Ecuador can boast of having 300 clinics dedicated to "curing" homosexuality while its decision to decriminalize homosexuality is forever linked to a police scandal involving brutal male rape underscores some of the crazy, twisted thinking involved at such moments, where the punishment meted out for being gay is, in one respect, more homosexuality—of course, not recognized as such by the law. But the man who was apprehended because of the law was merely participating in a contest; the police who raped him for his "crime," committing one themselves, got off scot-free.

In the States, after strenuous opposition from pro-reparative psychiatrists such as Charles Socarides, the American Psychiatric Association finally agreed to depathologize homosexuality in 1973. Until that year, the association was relatively sanguine in representing homosexuality as a mental illness. The move to depathologize was fiercely resisted. Indeed, the outcome was only considered acceptable because Robert Spitzer, later made editor of the association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in part for this act, came up with a compromise term that seemed to appease both sides: "Sexual Orientation Disturbance." Though the term wasn't formally adopted, it helped pave the way for subsequent discussion about "ego-dystonic homosexuality," which in turn struck many as pathologizing "homosexual arousal." In moving still later to an emphasis on "Gender Identity Disorder," the APA shifted the focus of attention (and supposed pathology) onto transsexualism, without losing much, if any, of the underlying, normalizing prejudice of its thinking.

In the ex-gay ministries, we see ample amounts of blinkered thinking, prejudice, and sanctimony passing as well-meaning care for the "patient" and the wisdom of the Lord. But with all the antigay taunts that have driven some recently to suicide, it seems necessary to end with the words of Marcus Bachmann's former patient, Andrew Ramirez, who said he'd come forward because he was tired of the bigotry, the stale but recurring assumption that lesbians and gay men need to change in the first place. (Doubtless, Bachmann's comments that gays were "barbarians" who "need to be educated" and "disciplined" could not have helped.) Ramirez wanted, he said, to "send a clear message" to the vulnerable and self-doubting: "There's nothing wrong with you."

"There's nothing wrong with you." Excellent words. What will it take for the ex-gay ministries in the States and around the world to heed them? Follow me on Twitter: @christophlane