The Curative Curse: Shining a Light on the “Ex-Gay” Movement
In the wake of New York State’s long-awaited gay marriage victory and the reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) in the US, there is a troubling counter-theme that has emerged in literature and the mainstream media this year. As if showing the photo-negative of these homo triumphs, media attention has been intensely focused on “curative therapy”, otherwise known as “reparative therapy,” a discredited form of pseudo-psychology based on the notion of homosexuality is a curable disease.
Dozens (some say hundreds) of clinics and therapists across the world, from Latin America to the UK, base their practice on religious doctrines that view homosexuality as unnatural, and goes a step further claiming that they are able to “cure” children, teens and adults of the aberration that is same-sex desire. From Anderson Cooper’s 3-part investigation into the “’Sissy Boy’ Experiment” which aired in June, to Guardian journalist Patrick Strudwick’s undercover work to expose state-sanctioned curative therapy in the UK (“She tried to make me pray away the gay,” May 2011), the prevalence of reparative therapists who continue the practice has become a hot topic this year, harkening back to darker eras before homosexuality was decriminalized in (much of) the West. Those familiar with queer history are reminded by these stories that the threat of being thrown into the asylum was once second only to the threat of prison as a form of social control and punishment for gay, lesbian and transgender people.
A catalyst for much of the recent coverage was GLAAD-nominated author Tomas Mournian, whose teen runaway novel Hidden tells the story of youth who survive kidnapping, torture, forced medicalization and homelessness. Hidden is based on interviews with youth living in safe houses in California after escaping covert “hospitals” where gays teens were brought by their family against their will to be turned straight. Mournian’s research revealed the frightening conditions and family complicity in these stories of teens undergoing genital torture, solitary confinement, and constant doses of Thorazine, a controlled drug referred to as a “chemical lobotomy,” normally used on disturbed patients. Mournian was commissioned by none other than gay idol George Michael to make the short video Hiding Out, where the reality of gay runaways is told with heart-breaking honesty: how they were kidnapped by their own parents and brought to these “hospitals,” and how ineffectual social services and LGBT organizations are in helping them. “I asked for help, I went everywhere I could think of. Social services can’t help us because we have to have our parents’ consent… and gay and lesbian organizations are scared to touch the issue of what to do with an underage kid,” recounts one of the survivors in the video. Mournian’s novel fictionalizes the story by focusing on one character, Ahmed, but is based on the true stories of constant fear, police raids, parental complicity, and vulnerability that define the lives of conversion therapy runaways.
Like many of the anti-gay arguments that paralleled the growing gay rights movement from the 50’s to the 1973, when homosexuality was finally struck from the DSM-II, reparative therapists use fear tactics that associate gay behaviour with pathological urges, pedophilia, social alienation, and punishment in the afterlife. One major group, the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, claims to “offer hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality,” i.e. since social stigma causes people to want to turn straight, then it’s their role to provide that therapy. NARTH promotes “research” on conversion practices, as well as religious-inspired literature on the topic with titles like Growing Up Straight, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality and the Power to Change, Pure as He is Pure, and A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. While their clinical practice may differ, a similar outlook is to be found in influential anti-gay organizations like Exodus International, which preaches “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ” and JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. And, as if sprung from an alternate satirical universe, there is PFOG, a prominent organization for Parents and Friends of ExGays. PFOG scarily echoes certain queer theorists in claiming that “No one should identify themselves based on sexual feelings alone; there is more to your identity than your sexual attractions,” as if making shame about same-sex attraction a positive fact that their approach should build on. Their surreal youth-directed pamphlet is entitled “Feelings Change: They are Only One Part of You!”
Watching CNN’s “’Sissy Boy Experiment’” exposé of so-called therapists associated with NARTH, many gay activists’ assumptions about these groups become clear: many conversion therapists are closeted gays themselves, whose internalized homophobia has fuelled their commitment to the movement. George Rekers, once one of the most influential conversion therapists in the US, would later be dismissed from NARTH—of which he was a founder— after a scandal where he was caught traveling to Europe with a young male escort whom he’d hired to “help carry his luggage.” (The escort claimed he had given Rekers sexual massages on the trip.) Reker’s curative experiments left at least one of his former patients so emotionally damaged that he later committed suicide. In one highly publicized case form this year, Iowa ex-pastor Brent Girouex faced 60 charges of sexual assault against teens for trying to help them “gain sexual purity” by praying and ejaculating while he molested them. This case was an echo of the 2010 downfall of University of Calgary psychiatrist Dr. Aubrey Levin, a.k.a. “Dr. Shock,” a conversion therapist who was charged with sexually assaulting a 36 year-old male patient. Facts would emerge about Levin’s history of using shock therapy in trying to “cure” South African soldiers of homosexuality during the apartheid era, raising questions of how the man was able to obtain his position and keep it for so long up to that point.
Cures that Kill
Internationally, the IDAHO-led group Cures that Kill / Curas Que Matan (dayagainsthomophobia.org) is trying to bring attention to the ongoing pathologizing of homosexuality in China and Latin America, where medical associations are not as influential in preventing these “therapists” from being seen as legitimate. Cures that Kill came out against social services in Hong Kong for hiring Hong Kwai-Wah, who specialises in “treating unwanted homosexuality,” this past June. Here at home, the 2010 NFB documentary Cure for Love by Canadian filmmakers Christina Willings and Francine Pelletier followed several fundamentalist Christian “ex-gays” who claimed to have been rescued from the gay lifestyle, revealing the uncertainty and anguish behind their choices. Willings believes there to be ex-gay ministries operating in every province across Canada, and that “mainly they’re found in little non-descript strip malls,” where their practices are entirely unregulated. Even in otherwise famously tolerant Montréal, the Catholic Church is poised to appoint a new bishop, Christian Lépine, known for giving courses on how to “develop your child’s heterosexual potential,” in other words, preying on parental homophobia to advance his career.
Luckily for public perception, the overwhelming opinion of recognized medical and social scientists is that reparative therapies do more harm than good. Even groups that support a religious therapeutic approach caution that “There exists considerable anecdotal evidence of extreme depression… and suicide following such therapies,” (religioustolerance.org) an opinion shared by the Canadian, American and Royal (British) Colleges of Physicians. Meanwhile, LGBT groups across the globe continue to fight the abuse, manipulation, and misinformation perpetrated by conversion therapy supporters. Groups like BeyondExGay, Ex Gay Watch, and Truth Wins Out use Youtube videos, petitions, and critical media outlets like the Guardian and The Nation to sound the alarm. In yet another damning undercover report by Truth Wins Out that emerged this July, the husband of US Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann was revealed to be running a clinic, Bachmann & Ass., that “endorses and practices reparative therapy aimed at changing a gay person’s sexual orientation.” The desire to punish and change people for their sexuality continues to be at odds with the countermovement, which seeks to change societal attitudes so that shame has less control over LGBT people’s lives. The debate goes on, but what we have seen from the mountain of coverage this year gives us hope that truth may indeed win out.
You can view Francine Pelletier & Christina Willings’ Cure for Love for free on the NFB website at www.nfb.ca/film/cure_for_love
You can sign the Cures that Kill petition at www.dayagainsthomophobia.org/Sign-the-Petition,513
Tomas Mournian’s Hidden (2010) is published by Kensington Books.