Behind Conversion Therapy: How we got it and how we stop it?
Tomorrow, the Assembly Business and Professions Committee will hear Senate Bill 1172, Equality California’s bill to ban therapists from subjecting minors to discriminatory and dangerous sexual orientation change efforts. Testifying at the hearing is Ryan Kendall, a survivor of the practice who testified in the Perry v. Brown challenge to Prop 8. During his time in the program, he was paired with another gay kid, Gabriel Arana, as a “therapy partner.”
Gabriel Arana was once a gay kid, put into therapy by scared but well-meaning parents, but instead of that therapy working to support him as he came to grips with being a healthy, fulfilled adult, that therapy was based on the idea that being gay was bad and that he could be cured.
Recently, he wrote about the experience for the American Prospect, “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,”. Stunningly, his article sparked an apology and retraction from the only credible scientist to ever investigate the issue, Robert Spitzer. Here’s more about his story and how “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life” came to be:
“Part of the reason Spitzer agreed to talk to me is that I’m one of [Dr. Joseph] Nicolosi’s patients,” said Arana. Spitzer was old, and quiet now. He’d loved controversies in his earlier days — he was one of the psychologists that led the charge to have homosexuality removed from the second volume of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II), when it was reprinted in 1974. But he had also authored a controversial 2001 paper that seemed to support the idea that people could change their sexual identity.
After a slow start — “I had trouble finding his house,” said Arana — they began to talk.
“The initial focus was on some of his 1973 work. What does it mean to have a mental disorder? Then I meant to transition. I was not expecting him to walk back his study.”
Spitzer asked about Arana’s life, and his years in therapy under Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, one of the foremost proponents of so-called reparative therapy. Nicolosi’s particular spin is that of “gender-identity deficit,” which comes from being alienated from people of the same gender.
“If you tell somebody that they can change their sexual orientation, that seems archaic. If you tell someone that you’re gay because they weren’t close to their daddy, that they identified with mommy, people are very sympathetic to that. It has a very self-fulfilling, pop psychology appeal,” said Arana.
Spitzer started to express regret, and then said, “I don’t think people changed,” according to Arana.
“I was surprised. He really vociferously defended the study in the couple of months after it had come out, but he had been thinking about it for years. I was a good journalist; I asked him, ‘If you were to publish a retraction, what would it say?’ and ‘Why would you want to publish a retraction?’”
They talked a while, and the conversation meandered. Spitzer got tired, and Arana had good quotes, but Spitzer hadn’t made a definitive statement one way or another. Until Arana was about to leave, then Spitzer said, “So, will you retract this?”
“[Spitzer] felt guilty about it, and felt guilty about the way it had been used,” said Arana. “It’s odd. People criticized him for the 2001 study… In 1973, he went against prevailing opinion. He sort of did the same thing in 2001. But in 1973, it was a good thing. In 2001, it wasn’t. ”
So Arana ran the retraction, and the reaction was good. Spitzer asked for the contact information for Wayne Bessen, who runs Truth Wins Out. They ran Spitzer’s apology here.
There were some doubters.
“People — including Nicolosi — called and asked me for the recording of Spitzer. I was kind of insulted. Of course I had recorded it. I’m not going to stake my reputation on a huge lie,” says Arana.
Arana had contacted the journal that Spitzer’s article had run in, Archives of Sexual Behavior, but the editor, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, didn’t respond until after Arana published his scoop.
“I finally spoke to the editor at one of the journals — first I got an angry email, saying basically, ‘How can I be held responsible for that?’” said Arana. “The journal didn’t want to publish a retraction, but is willing to publish a letter from Spitzer saying there were these methodological errors.”
Further complicating the issue is that Zucker is currently on the same task force that Spitzer had been in 1973, but this time the fight is over gender identity, and Zucker is a big proponent of diagnosing “gender identity disorder” in children, and advocates “reparative therapy” for kids who feel that their gender identity is causing them discomfort or distress, something that both clinical psychologists and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have protested.
Spitzer’s study relied on self-reported numbers, where people had a significant incentive to claim that they were 100 percent A-OK straight, a problem that underpins all current research on so-called ex-gay therapy.
“I asked Nicolosi, the people at NARTH, ‘How many have you treated? How many members do you have?’ But they don’t give those numbers out. So it’s hard to tell,” said Arana. “Nicolosi told me that they had a 90 percent success rate with motivated patients. The ambiguity is part of what’s damaging about the claims these therapists make.”
The American Psychological Association conducted a meta-study — or study of studies — in 2007, and it found no evidence that reparative therapy worked, with the strongest claims coming from Spitzer.
“Now even Exodus International is stepping back from claiming that it works. Their spokesman, he said now that for 99.9 percent of people he knows, they’re still gay,” said Arana.
If it doesn’t work, why do people still send their kids to NARTH shrinks?
“If I was talking to parents thinking about sending their kids to ex-gay therapy, I’d say ‘Don’t!’ I’ve examined the reasons why parents send their kids to ex-gay therapy. My parents thought they were protecting me. I’d encourage parents to look into the effects of ex-gay therapy and to realize that gay people can lead happy lives,” said Arana. “Twenty to 30 years ago, being gay was really tragic, but as society has gotten better and more accepting, that’s not true anymore. ”
“I really do think it’s a crime to take a kid who’s unsure of themself and poison them with these ideas. At the time, I was awkward and had pimples, and Nicolosi is telling me that I felt vulnerable and awkward because I was gay,” said Arana. “When I was in therapy, I really believed what I was being taught, and had my therapy partner Ryan who thought it was a load of crap, but it hurt both of us.”
Ryan Kendall, Arana’s therapy partner who will testify tomorrow, describes his experience this way, “As a young teen, the anti-gay practice of so-called conversion therapy destroyed my life and tore apart my family. In order to stop the therapy that misled my parents into believing that I could somehow be made straight, I was forced to run away from home, surrender myself to the local department of human services, and legally separate myself from my family.” Kendall continues, “At the age of 16, I had lost everything. My family and my faith had rejected me, and the damaging messages of conversion therapy, coupled with this rejection, drove me to the brink of suicide. For the next decade I struggled with depression, periods of homelessness, and drug abuse.”
“It took me a decade to rebuild my life, but we know that too many people are not so fortunate,” said Kendall.
Arana talked to his parents for his story, too.
“One of the things I couldn’t include [due to space] was how supportive they have been,” he said. “I actually interviewed them for this. They still live in the town I grew up in, in the house I grew up in. I think they’re embarrassed a bit. Now they’re really supportive.”
And even with all of the pain Arana went through, he doesn’t see any villains.
“It’d be one thing if Nicolosi were a monster and hated gay people and just wanted to make money. I mean, he holds anti-gay views, there’s anti-gay biases there. It came up once if gay people could get AIDS from oral sex, and he said if that was true gay guys across America would be jerking off in hamburgers,” said Arana.
“Good people can do bad things. I think he’s someone who’s trying to do good, but does bad things. Good people do bad things usually when they’re trapped or don’t have the information. I just want people to get the information,” he said.
And to kids facing this pseudo-therapy now?
“You’re wonderful the way you are, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you can be happy. I’m sorry your parents sent you to ex-gay therapy,” said Arana.
Equality California is dedicated to ending this unscientific and harmful practice and has sponsored SB 1172, which will have a committee hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, June 26 in the Assembly Business and Professions Committee at 9 am. Follow the hearing on Twitter or watch the hearing live here.