The Learning Channel (TLC) aired a new show Sunday called "My Husband's Not Gay", a one-hour special that depicts four men who are attracted to men but are married to women. This show has caused outrage among gay advocacy groups who claim that TLC is supporting the concept of "gay conversion therapy," a series of therapeutic techniques designed to alter gay or lesbian people's sexuality. In fact, gay conversion therapy is an unproven therapeutic technique that not only has been condemned by major professional groups but also risks perpetuating the damaging stigma facing gay people.
Gay conversion therapy developed when the mental health field labeled homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 1952, the American Psychological Association (APA) published the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), with homosexuality included in the list. Unsubstantiated theories involving complex, unconscious processes were constructed to support the belief that homosexuality is a mental disorder. A variety of techniques from a range of disciplines, including aversion therapy were utilized to "treat" homosexuality without proof of efficacy.
It has now been almost 30 years since homosexuality was considered a mental health disorder. Evidence points to a complex interaction of biological and environmental factors that point to sexuality not being a "choice." Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association passed resolutions stating that the "evidence" for the efficacy of reparative therapy does not meet any accepted standards in the field and has generally been debunked. Some lawmakers such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have signed laws prohibiting gay conversion therapy in minors.
And yet this practice continues to be championed. Organizations such as NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality) continue to support gay conversion therapy despite the lack of evidence. And political groups such as the Texas Republican party have made support of gay conversion therapy part of their platform.
The notion that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can be changed is part of and contributes to the broader context of discrimination against gay people. Studies suggest that lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people experience almost double the level of discrimination as compared to heterosexual people. And this mistreatment comes in many forms, including bullying, workplace harassment, and unequal treatment under the law for marital and adoption rights. And estimates suggest that 20 to 25 percent of LGB people experience criminal victimization because of their adult sexual orientation.
Whereas the theory and evidence for gay conversion therapy is fictitious, the damaging effect of discrimination against gay people is very real. Because the treatment is considered unethical, there are no controlled treatment studies of gay conversion therapy. But a recent survey of over 400 people who went through gay conversion therapy, 73 percent reported "emotional harm." These findings are consistent with prior research demonstrating that perceived discrimination among gay people is associated with increased psychological distress (e.g. anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation).
TLC has the right to air controversial shows, as adults who feel same sex attraction have the right to live the lifestyle that they deem best for them. But it is critical that we as a society step up and speak out against theories and practices like gay conversion therapy. To further such unsubstantiated theories and treatment is insensitive and runs the risk of promoting discrimination. To allow this practice to be conducted on children who are in no position to consent to such treatment is unconscionable. We must not appear passive or accepting of a treatment that has been so damaging. Otherwise, we risk being complicit with a practice that can directly damage and adds to the already powerful and harmful discrimination facing gay people.