The story of Zach, the gay teen who has been forced into a Christianist deprogramming camp for gays by his parents, has been in the news lately. Read about his story here. Meanwhile, Salon.com continues its four-part series on the insidious practice of “reparative therapy” that attempts to make people “un-gay.”
In this episode, the author pretends to be gay and goes to a Christian counselor and licensed social worker.
Barry Levy, a Christian counselor and licensed clinical social worker, is explaining to me what causes homosexuality. “Take the young boy who is more sensitive, more delicate, who doesn’t like rough-and-tumble, who is artistic,” he says. “He can’t hit the ball, fire the gun or shoot an arrow. There is a high correlation between poor eye-hand coordination and same-sex attraction.”
Levy practices what is called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, which allegedly helps homosexuals become heterosexuals. The theory that homosexuality is a mental disorder that needs to be cured is the moral underpinning of the Christian right’s crusade against gay marriage, sodomy laws, gay adoption and sex ed curriculums in schools. While all major modern mental health professions say conversion therapy is baseless and potentially dangerous, I wanted to experience for myself what is going on behind counselors’ closed doors.
When I arrived in Levy’s office, I was asked to fill out roughly 15 pages of questions about myself and my family. Mostly the questions centered on how I got along with my folks. In a section about my problems, I wrote “possible homosexuality.” The fact is, I’m straight, I’m married to a woman, and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a son due in October. I wrote on the form that that I was married with a kid. But I lied and said I was also living a secret life, that I harbored homosexual urges.
According to the Bible, Levy says, homosexuality “is not consistent with the manufacturer’s desire. It is not what the body is for. It is not what procreation is for. It is not what life energy is for. I am going to draw you out of that because the people around you are into that.” To receive God in his holiness, Levy tells me, to experience the ultimate happiness for which God created men and women, a person needs to overcome any homosexual feelings.
He turns to a central theory of reparative therapy, which is that a son’s unrequited love for an emotionally unavailable father gets transferred into sexual desire for men. Homosexual feelings can arise, Levy says, “when a boy is not affirmed in his gender by the father, who might be mean, who might be cruel, who might be absent. Often, there is a highly conflicted relationship where the mother disparages the father. She misidentifies with the marriage and might even start to identify with the son.” Under those circumstances, Dr. Joe Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality, later tells me, “temperamentally sensitive” boys become vulnerable to homosexuality.
Levy says reparative therapy is effective, but that a cure for homosexuality takes at least two years of weekly counseling. (My one hour cost Salon $140.) He says that if I stay in therapy, I will either turn straight or get “significant relief.”
The success or failure rate for changing gays is difficult to quantify. One study, often cited by conservative groups like Focus on the Family, shows incremental success from reparative therapy. But critics point out that the study was based solely on interviews with subjects arranged by ex-gay ministries; in fact, many of them worked at the ministries.
Levy tells me that reparative therapy can be a lonely business. “There are not a lot of us who do this work,” he says. “It is politically incorrect. And it is difficult.” He also admits that “not everybody who starts down this road gets cured. This is not a sure-fire cure. I wish I could tell you that it is, but it is not.” But he remains committed.
Homosexuality “is not just another flower in God’s garden,” Levy says. “This is something that happens to people that can be fixed. And if someone comes seeking relief from this suffering, we would be wrong not to offer them relief.”
We have this joke in my family about my coming out to my parents. I sat them down and told them I was gay. There was this long silence, then my mom turned to my dad and said, “You owe me five bucks.”
It didn’t actually happen that way, but my parents accepted my revelation with the same love and compassion they’ve shown me all my life. They welcomed my partner of fifteen years into the family and my grandmother included him on her birthday gift list. Their only concern was that they knew I was going to face tough sledding in society; even in the “enlightened” 1970’s when disco was all the rage and The Village People and Lou Reed had big hits (and before AIDS), it was still tough to be gay, and thanks to wingnuts like Zach’s parents and therapists like Mr. Levy, it still is.
The problem with “reparative therapy” is that it plays off the stereotypes that society has ingrained into its fabric through ignorance and bigotry. In my case, the “distant father” routine is crap. My dad is one of the most emotionally connected and caring people I know, he always has been, and we are very close. I have two brothers — one older, one younger — and they are both as straight as can be. So if that theory of the conflicted family is true, why aren’t my brothers gay? As for the athletic ability, well, no, I was not a jock. I am a pretty damn good swimmer, though, and could shoot a target rifle well enough to earn several awards at camp in riflery. (Ironic since I am a pacifist and won’t have a gun in my house.) I have known my share of jocks and well-coordinated athletes who were the stars of their varsity sports and are as gay as pink shoes. So that part of the theory flies out the window. What else is left? How about an unnatural interest in fashion and color? Ha. These people have obviously never seen my wardrobe, and while I keep a nice house, I wouldn’t know a design cue from pork liver. Yes, I’m artistic…sort of. I like theatre. So do a lot of straight people, and I don’t have one show tune album in my collection. I haven’t liked any Broadway musical since Fiddler on the Roof.
The only suffering the gay community is going through is at the hands of people like Levy and PFOX, and the only relief we want is to have society accept us as just another piece in the mosaic of life. The only time my parents suggested I get therapy for being gay was so that I would be assured that I could accept myself as a normal and good person and that I could feel comfortable in dealing with the cruelties of an intolerant society. I decided not to go; my family provided all the strength I needed. It’s too bad that the same can’t be said for people like Zach.