The American website Upworthy, which in the past I’ve found unexceptionable, if at times rather sentimental, recently posted a video that brought me up short. It was praising an American Christian company that, unlike the infamous Hobby Lobby, was apparently funding its employees’ healthcare insurance without exceptions. So far so admirable. The first employee interviewed was full of praise for his employers’ generosity: they had funded all his therapy. “And what therapy was that?” asked the interviewer. “Gay conversion therapy,” he said, his eyes shining. Her reaction: “Wow, that’s wonderful!” When he then said how many people there were who needed it, I’m afraid I stopped watching the video. For ‘religious’ reasons Hobby Lobby refuses to fund female employees’ contraception; I had a strong suspicion that for the same reasons this other company might be only too delighted to fund gay conversion therapy rather than have gay employees.
As many people know, there is a good deal of evidence to show that gay conversion therapy doesn’t work – never mind that it has sometimes been seriously abusive and has undoubtedly left many people feeling depressed and even suicidal. What it has tried to do – with, in some cases, a certain gloss of depth psychoanalysis – is to help (for ‘help’ you may wish to read ‘coerce’) gay people who are unhappy with their sexuality to become heterosexual, or at the very least to refrain from homosexual behaviour. Often the methods seem pretty crude: getting a gay man to dress like a ‘real’ man, making him go to sports events instead of concerts or art exhibitions where he might meet other gays, teaching him to imitate heterosexual men’s behaviour and date women, encouraging him to marry and father children. Aversion therapy used to be part of some of these programmes, but it has had a bad press and has not been widely used for some time. It still has its advocates, though it’s hard to see how making someone vomit every time he sees an arousing picture of a man will enable him to feel positive about sex with women.
Several of the gay conversion therapy organisations have been forced to admit that people’s sexuality seldom, if ever, changes in response to this kind of brainwashing – I find it hard to not to call it so – and have softened many of their attitudes. Nevertheless, to judge from this video gay conversion therapy is still alive and flourishing, particularly among the American religious right. One of their assumptions is that homosexuality is a choice and people have been ‘converted’ to it – meaning, of course, that they can then be converted from it. According to them people aren’t gay by nature: they have ‘become’ so and therefore may potentially convert others. In the wider Christian anti-gay movement, alongside the assumption that people have been ‘converted’ to homosexuality often lies the uglier assumption that anyone homosexual is also a paedophile. From there it isn’t too far to the various gay conspiracy theories – which to me sound disturbingly like some of the Jewish conspiracy theories. I don’t want to start talking about Fascism but can’t help being aware that it casts a shadow.
One of the conversion therapists’ arguments is that the human genital organs are designed by nature for heterosexual sex – which clearly they are. However, it seems that a good number of non-human species, including dolphins and many of the apes, are quite happy to use their heterosexually-intended organs in other ways as well, and do so without obvious harm. It’s possible that some of the gay conversion therapists don’t accept our evolutionary links to other animals, and many more would make a distinction between instinctive animal behaviour and human moral choice. But the fact that we are not the only species to include homosexual behaviour in our repertoire suggests that perhaps it’s not as alien to us as we might like to think. Undoubtedly people do have a moral choice as to how they use their sexuality – and for some that may include the decision not to use it – but in the paradigm I prefer to follow it is their individual choice and not behaviour imposed on them from outside.
As a psychotherapist I’ve been aware that sometimes people’s sexuality does undergo surprising changes, whether temporarily or permanently. In my experience such changes, if they happen, don’t come about from deliberate choice or from any conscious attempt to make them happen. And they may occur either way – from straight to gay as well as gay to straight. As people begin to explore their feelings they tend to encounter areas in themselves that they had not known about before, and sexuality may be one of these. Most psychotherapists and psychotherapy organisations would say that the therapist’s role is not to influence the outcome but to support the client in finding what’s right for her/him. If homosexuality isn’t seen as a dysfunction (it was removed from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual some time ago), it’s not appropriate to ‘treat’ it. Accept it, yes, explore the feelings around it if the person wishes, see it in the context of their whole life, but not try to make it go away.
I’m also aware as a psychotherapist that quite often – I can’t say always – there do seem to be factors in someone’s very early experience which may have influenced their sexuality. The view of some gay conversion therapists, following the notorious Charles Socarides, is that through psychoanalysis and ‘reparative therapy’ these factors (which Socarides seems to have reduced to a stereotyped few, rather than seeing them as unique to each individual) can be reversed. Exploring them in therapy can certainly bring greater acceptance and understanding, but time and time again it has been shown that there’s no guarantee it will change someone’s sexual orientation. One might see it as poetic justice that Socarides’ son is openly gay.
It’s common to most of us that early experiences – sometimes very early indeed – which have not been ideal may have led us to adopt a particular career or lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ‘cured’ of the life we are living. I can think of all sorts of less than perfect reasons why I’ve so much wanted to write – perhaps even more why I wanted to become a psychotherapist – but those reasons don’t mean I have to see what I do as invalid. Someone who is lesbian or gay may well have been inclined in that direction from before birth, certainly from before the onset of conscious memory. It is what they feel and who they are; expecting that they should change is both a tall order and an unnecessary imposition. In a way that I have no control over, my body tells me I like celery; at the same time I know people who do not merely dislike it but feel physically revolted by it, and this too is outside their control. Imagine how preposterous it would be if the celery-haters tried to make celery-lovers like me hate it too, or convinced us there was something wrong with us for liking it.
Many years ago, back in the 1970s, I was powerfully impressed Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream. Among his many assertions he insists that people who are gay are living an ‘unreal’ life. His view is that by feeling and experiencing the original trauma in his particular way, i.e. through Primal Therapy, people will then be able to let go of the need for their homosexuality. In some of the dramatic accounts of his clients’ therapy this seems to have happened: the person becomes more ‘masculine’ (if a man) or ‘feminine’ (if a woman) and vilifies their previous ‘unreal’ relationships. Again stereotyping is rife. (Janov later modified his view that all homosexuality could be ‘cured’ by Primal Therapy and moved more towards acceptance of it.) For a while – before I became a therapist – I almost bought into Janov’s ideas, but then as I explored my own confusions about sexuality I began to look at the lesbian and gay people I knew. Were they necessarily any more ‘unreal’ than anyone else, or more neurotic and unhappy? I have to say I didn’t find them so, except perhaps in relation to the pressures and discriminations they encountered from the rest of society.
We are fortunate in this country that religious conservatism doesn’t have the same hold as it does in the United States. Nevertheless homophobia, including the internalised homophobia that seems to drive people into gay conversion therapy, does exist, as do the dilemmas of gay people who try to reconcile their sexuality with conservative religion. At the same time we have just celebrated the coming of gay marriage and greater tolerance – though the word makes me want to ask why those of us who find ourselves elsewhere on the sexuality spectrum than at 100% heterosexual should have to be ‘tolerated’. There are many options open other than gay conversion therapy, and many more opportunities than there used to be for being happy without having to be ‘normal’.