If you are attracted to members of the same sex, and you aren’t happy about it, can you change? The answer is, of course, answered in ringing affirmatives by the advocates of ‘reparative therapy’, the ‘ex-gay’ movement which has spread from the US through Christian groups to many parts of the world, including Hong Kong. The movement claims (or seems to claim; more of that later) that turning to God, the exercise of will and the alteration of behaviour patterns to conform to traditional gender roles will enable a person to change his or her sexual orientation.
These claims have never been scientifically substantiated.
Robert L Spitzer's deeply flawed and widely discredited study
often quoted by ex-gay advocates
The closest that anyone has got to doing so was in 2001, when the American psychiatrist Robert L Spitzer (who had hitherto been renowned for spearheading the successful drive to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of disorders in 1973-4) published a study which created a storm, as it seemed to show that, in some case, change was possible. His study, though, was deeply flawed and has been widely discredited, mostly as its sample of 200 American men was drawn only from volunteers found for him by the ‘ex-gay’ movement. These men were committed psychologically to the success of their ‘therapy’; 96% of them stated that religion was ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important in their lives and a full 19% admitted that they were paid employees of ‘ex-gay’ ministries or sympathetic therapists. Spitzer’s conception of what defined a homosexual and a heterosexual were also idiosyncratic; 47% of his male and 67% of his female subjects admitted that they had enjoyed sex with a member of the opposite sex before their therapy and 13% of the male and 4% of the female subjects had never had homosexual sex at all, yet Spitzer admitted them to the study as homosexuals who had sought change.
To gauge the success of the ‘reparative therapy’ they had undergone, Spitzer developed a standard for what he called ‘good heterosexual functioning’: having heterosexual sex with a partner ‘at least a few times a month’ and ‘during no more than 15% of these occasions thinking of homosexual sex’. Despite this skewing, and the fact that the average length of time that his subjects had been involved in therapy was 4.7 years (21 percent of them had been in therapy for 15 years and were still undergoing it), he found that only 11% of the males and 37% of the females claimed that therapy had completely altered not only their behaviour but also their sexual orientation so that they never felt attraction to members of the same sex. Spitzer’s study did not prove that sexual orientation can be changed by ‘reparative therapy’. Instead, it proved that even amongst the tiny number of the most committed and partial partisans of ‘reparative therapy’, 89% of males and 63% or females, who in many cases had undergone 15 years of ‘therapy’, admitted that they have been unable to change their sexual orientation. The detail is in Jack Drescher and Kenneth Zucker’s Ex-Gay Research: Analysizing the Spitzer Study and Its Relation to Science, Religion, Politics and Culture (2006).
Spitzer himself acknowledged a lot of the criticisms and wrote on 24 September 2001:
It would be a serious mistake to conclude from my study that any highly motivated homosexual can change his or her sexual orientation, or that my study shows that homosexuality is a ‘choice.’… I personally favor anti-discrimination laws and civil union laws for homosexuals.
Shidlo and Schroeder's ex-gay research
In 2002 the more rigorous study by Shidlo and Schroeder was published by the American Psychiatric Association. These researchers assessed 202 volunteers who had passed through ‘reparative therapy’. 87% stated outright that it had failed them. 9% stated that they considered the ‘therapy’ had been a success but confessed that they were still struggling to cope with homosexual desire. The remaining 4% reported that they were now heterosexual; unsurprisingly, almost all of these were working professionally in the ‘ex-gay’ counselling field.
'Reparative therapy' as snake oil
So, the science is clear that ‘reparative therapy’ is snake oil and doesn’t work (which is why I continue to irritate you all by putting inverted commas around it). From the continual research of ‘ex-gay’ watchers like Wayne Besen, author of Anything But Straight we have a never ending flood of anecdotal and personal evidence to back this up. There’s scarcely a US ‘ex-gay’ organisation without a leader or two that has had to be expelled as a black sheep for having their cover blown, so much so that these organisations nowadays are having to draft in heterosexual leaders as it’s safer (the ‘ever straights’ in the weird terminology of this world). But personal witness by those who have hoped for change and endured the ‘therapy’ is still rare, especially in Asia, which is why the arrival of two ‘ex-gay’ speakers in Hong Kong this month has been such an event.
The Reverend Steve Parelli and his partner José Ortis work for a small US NGO called Other Sheep, which was founded in Latin America by Tom Hanks (no, not the film star) in 1992 and ministers worldwide to LGBT people of faith within their own religious traditions (and this includes Muslims). The NGO is funded by individual donations and charitable grants (the principal being that from the Carpenter Foundation) and has a staff of about 15. Its website is www.othersheep.org.
Steve, the son of an evangelical minister who refused to acknowledge his son’s sexuality, was a Baptist minister for about two decades till 1997, a married man with four children who struggled with his sexuality until at the age of 44 he met José, and realised that the years of ‘therapy and counselling’ had led to nothing but pain and failure. As a minister of the Calvinist tradition, one which prescribes a somewhat dour acceptance of earthly disappointment but one which gives confidence to its members of compensation by joining the elect in heaven, he’d thought he could live with his plight. He found, though, in middle age that he could not. From being a minister with all the answers, he discovered that all that was left to him were questions. José was a Pentecostalist who had started training to be a priest but had not been able to fulfil that dream because of the energy he was wasting. Amongst other things, he’d been dating a woman for four years. The miracle he had expected God to work in changing him had not come, so instead he became a psychologist and counsellor.
On a visit to Mexico in 2005, they came into contact with Other Sheep and were quickly attracted to join, and since then they’ve been working for the NGO in the field every year in their summer holidays. Steve became Other Sheep’s Executive Director and José its Coordinator for Africa and Asia, and their work has taken them so far to many countries. This has included East Africa (including Uganda, which they see as a lesson in what could have happened to the US had it not had its secular democratic bulwarks) and to Nepal, where they have formed a link with Sunil Pant’s Blue Diamond Society. This year, they are travelling to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, India and Beijing, and they stopped for about a week in Hong Kong, principally to visit the only church ministering to LGBT people here, the Blessed Minority Christian Fellowship (BMCF). In an afternoon session on Saturday 17 July, before a BMCF audience of about 40, they jointly presented a talk entitled Is There Really Such a Thing as Ex-Gay?
Both Steve and José have considerable experience of ‘reparative therapy’. Steve was a member of a gay-lesbian self-help group and had become a member of New Warriors, a heterosexual group formed to mentor homosexuals by ‘healing’ their ‘woundedness’. He had also undergone a three year course of telephone (yes, by phone!) therapy with no less than Joseph Nicolosi, the most well-known psychologist in the ‘ex-gay’ movement and founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). José had joined Sexually Compulsives Anonymous, one of five sex addiction groups in the US using the twelve step programme developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. They met at an ‘ex-gay’ support group at the Calgary Baptist Church in Manhattan, fell in love, and were lucky enough to be prescribed three days of male-to-male hugging by Joseph Nicolosi as part of Steve’s therapy of ‘healing’ his lack of male-to-male contact; they have been together and in love ever since. So, they have first hand experience and more then sufficient entitlement to talk about it. What is their view of ‘reparative therapy’?
8 problems at the core of the 'ex-gay' movement
They see eight problems at the core of the ‘ex-gay’ movement. Number one: it is a movement rooted in traditional cultural norms and not in good religious interpretation (biblical exegesis) or modern science. It arose in 1975 as a reaction to the growth of gay and other liberation in the USA in the late sixties and early seventies and has its origins in the evangelical culture of religion, country and flag. The tying of religion – and religion of an evangelical hue – to patriotism makes for a particularly heady brew and accounts for a lot of the vitriol of the opposition to gay liberation. This leads the movement to try to justify its tenets in mis-interpreted religious ‘clobber texts’, which are used out of context to beat the believer. Number two; the movement’s use of psychology is out of date and highly selective. Its science is spurious and discredited in the mainstream, and its practitioners are held in little respect in their profession. Ideas of smothering mothers, distant fathers and childhood abuse litter their literature. Number three: whilst the movement promises ‘change’, it can only deliver behavioural modification, something its leaders admit (though usually only in the small print). It is inevitable that it will disappoint ‘those who want to arrive at a destination but find themselves alone on the train not knowing where they are going’, as Steve puts it.
Number four: the movement attempts to alter behaviour into stereotypical male and female gender roles, ignoring the reality of diversity and the cultural base for these stereotypes. By behaving like a man, by playing ball, by dressing conservatively, by avoiding anything effeminate, it says, you will be ‘healed’; an idea, of course, which would be ludicrous if it were not so sad, but an attractive one to those who have been damaged by the ostracism that their differences have attracted all their lives. Number five: the movement is riven by dishonesty. Personal failings have to be glossed over in order to conform to a God-ordained success, so the inevitable failures are brushed under the carpet. The enthusiasm of new adherents is touted as success while the failure of older members is ignored; the movement’s poster boy or girl is always the new face.
Number six: the claims of success used in the movement’s propaganda are not substantiated. No statistics are kept and wild statements are made. There is never any attempt to follow up on people who exit the movement. Number seven: the movement is tied to certain types of religious experience and sees being ‘ex-gay’ as a walk with a personal Jesus who will be with you in ‘an unending process of overcoming’ in the service of God. Not much help, here, for the skeptic, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the agnostic or atheist or even the middle of the road Anglican. Number eight: the movement views non-sexual close male relationships as essential for ‘healing’, a claim as unsubstantiated and dubiously based as it is positively inimical to resisting temptation (as Steve and Jose so luckily found!).
Why, then, does this movement persist? Steve and José believe that it will not do so in the long term, as it is based upon a negativity which will destroy it, but in the mean time it survives because of the sincere enthusiasm of many of those within it and the never-ending succession of young men and women it attracts as they come to adulthood and who wish to follow the religion in which they have been brought up. Though many of the movement’s leading practitioners seem to be unscrupulous, the mass of its membership consists of deeply troubled men and women who are seeking help or trying to give help to others. Those who undergo the experience of ‘reparative therapy’ therefore often have nothing but affection for those who mislead them through the process. I found this phenomenon amongst the audience at the talk and it is something noted by many researchers (see, for instance, Tanya Erzen’s 2006 account, Straight to Jesus). That is at least one reason why it is so difficult to find people prepared to speak out.
Speak out they must, though, if the continuing psychological damage endured by those seeking to be ‘ex-gay’ is to be stopped. The Hong Kong medical establishment has yet to have the courage to stand up for the truth and to make any statement about ‘reparative therapy’ and its dangers. Eventually, they will have to be pushed into doing so. Steve Parelli and José Ortiz have left Hong Kong now, but they have planted a seed here which the LGBT movement in Hong Kong should tend to full growth.
Corrections: Shidlo and Schroeder published the results of their study in 2002 and not 2007 as originally stated. Nicolosi a psychologist not a psychiatrist. The article has been amended.