Rick Perry vs. Reality: The Truth About Gay Conversion Therapy

It's no great secret that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's political stance is more than slightly anti-gay. In fact, he wears his badge of homophobia proudly, openly subscribing to the now-antiquated Karl Rove "anything-that's-not-exactly-like-me-is-evil" school of political advancement. You know, divide and conquer. Even though this approach didn't work very well for Perry in his 2012 presidential bid, he's sticking to his guns as he gears up for a 2016 run.

Perry's most recent display of ignorance/bigotry occurred in, of all places, San Francisco, where he somehow thought it wise to defend the Texas Republican Party's recent endorsement of "gay conversion therapy" (also called reparative therapy). Perry defended this new plank in his party's platform to a Commonwealth Club of California audience, telling them, "Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that." Many at the conservative, pro-Perry gathering actually gasped at this remark. Nevertheless, he forged on, comparing homosexuality to addiction. "I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way."

Did He Just Say, "The Homosexual Issue"?

Once upon a time, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. In 1973, however, the APA reversed its stance, and since that time the organization has worked hard to live down the ignominious embarrassment of ever having backed that idea. Today the APA--along with pretty much every other major medical and psychotherapeutic professional organization--views healthy human sexuality as existing on a continuum ranging from heterosexuality to homosexuality, with an endless array of perfectly acceptable stopping off points in-between.

The American Psychological Association (the other APA) has perhaps put it best, writing in a public policy statement:

Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectionate attraction toward others. It ... lies along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality.

Once again, pretty much every major medical and psychotherapeutic professional association has adopted this stance. In other words, homosexuality -- from a medical/emotional/psychiatric standpoint -- is not an issue.

If this were still the 1950s era of McCarthyism, with rampant sexism, government-sanctioned racism and all sorts of other fear-based ignorance, maybe people like Rick Perry and his fellow Texas Republicans could get away with calling homosexuality an "issue" (or an illness/disorder/whatever) requiring government intervention. In such a climate, Perry and his cohorts might even have been lauded for their stance, as Joe McCarthy was initially glorified for his Red Scare campaigning. But this isn't the 1950s. In today's world, we have a tremendous amount of scientifically grounded information about human sexuality, and that information universally states that homosexuality is a healthy, normal, emotionally and psychologically acceptable way to be, think and live.

The Real Issue (Gay Conversion Therapy)

Let me be clear: You can't change a person's sexual orientation. Period. Even if a person wants to change his or her sexual orientation, it can't be done. Who turns us on is set by the time we exit the womb -- all acknowledged, peer-reviewed research and treatment outcomes support this fact. I know this myself, having been married for four years to a woman I loved very much in my 20s and with whom I had an active sex life. But she did not attract or arouse me sexually and that made it ultimately a painful go for both of us for many years. Many gays and lesbians have had similar experiences.

A gay man is attracted to other men whether he likes it or not, a lesbian is attracted to other women whether she likes it or not, and bisexual men and women are attracted to both genders whether they like it or not. No amount or type of therapy is going to change this. And just because someone who has same-sex orientation can achieve or even enjoy a sexual romantic experience with an opposite-sex partner doesn't mean that counseling them to live as such is helpful to them. We don't do therapy to help people become what they wish they were -- we do therapy for people to help them achieve peace, fulfillment, satisfaction and personal growth, starting with who they are. As such, a therapist's role in helping those struggling to integrate their feelings of same-sex attraction is not to try to eliminate or change those feelings, but rather to help the client accept and integrate all of who they are. No, the client needn't run out and start having sex with every willing same-sex partner in the vicinity. In fact, he/she needn't have sex at all. But he/she does need to understand and accept that in our culture, at this time, we consider same-sex feelings to be healthy, normal and something to incorporate, not something to be pathologized or avoided, regardless of any pressure they may receive (internally or externally) from religion, culture, family etc., to do so.

Sadly, there are many therapists and clergy who believe they can "pray away the gay." In response to their misguided (and emotionally/psychologically damaging efforts), both APA organizations have issued powerfully worded proclamations condemning conversion/reparative therapy. The American Psychiatric Association writes in its position statement:

In the current social climate, claiming homosexuality is a mental disorder stems from efforts to discredit the growing social acceptance of homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality. Consequently, the issue of changing sexual orientation has become highly politicized. The political and moral debates surrounding this issue have obscured the scientific data.... To date there are no scientifically rigorous outcome studies to determine [the efficacy] of reparative treatments... The literature consists of anecdotal reports... [Nevertheless, it] is still possible to evaluate the theories which rationalize the conduct of "reparative" and "conversion" therapies. Firstly, they are at odds with the scientific position of the American Psychiatric Association which has maintained, since 1973, that homosexuality per se is not a mental disorder... In recent years, noted practitioners of "reparative" therapy have openly integrated older psychoanalytic theories that pathologize homosexuality with traditional religious beliefs condemning homosexuality.

As usual, the American Psychological Association states the matter much more clearly in its public policy statement:

[Even] though most homosexuals live successful, happy lives, some homosexual or bisexual people may seek to change their sexual orientation through therapy, often coerced by family members or religious groups to try and do so. The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable... Some therapists who undertake so-called conversion therapy report that they have been able to change their clients' sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Close scrutiny of these reports, however, shows several factors that cast doubt on their claims. For example, many of these claims come from organizations with an ideological perspective that condemns homosexuality. Furthermore, their claims are poorly documented; for example, treatment outcome is not followed and reported over time, as would be the standard to test the validity of any mental health intervention.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Counseling Association and the National Association of Social Workers have issued similar statements condemning the practice of conversion/reparative therapy. And recently, California and New Jersey have passed laws stating that any clinician who practices reparative/conversion therapy on a minor is subject to licensing discipline. New York is considering such a measure. In time, other states will likely follow suit.

What's So Bad About Trying?

Perhaps some readers are saying to themselves, "Hey, if a person doesn't want to be gay, why can't he or she at least try to change? What's the harm in that?" Well no harm in trying for themselves to explore their relational world -- good for them! But the harm shows up when people who are already feeling self-shame and self-hatred are encouraged and mislead to enter a form of doomed-to-fail conversion/reparative therapy, which will reinforce, not reduce, their inherent feelings of isolation and low self-worth. In other words, reparative/conversion therapies not only don't work, they typically leave the people who try them feeling as if they have failed. Nevertheless, perfectly lucid adults are still free to try this approach -- even in California and New Jersey, where new clinical laws protect only minors. But the fact that major medical and psychotherapeutic organizations have universally condemned this practice, and now informed legislatures are stepping in to protect those who can't protect themselves from this often-harmful "treatment," should tell you all you need to know.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, Weiss has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tenn., Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. Weiss is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.

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