Getting Things Straight

Conversion therapy may lead many to feel out of control of their own lives.  Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie

Conversion therapy may lead many to feel out of control of their own lives.
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie

“It was psychologically devastating and the most harmful experience of my life.”

Connell O’Donovan sat in a session of conversion therapy to cure his homosexuality at the University of Utah in 1986, where a Ph. D. intern conducted hypnotherapy. Originally he was excited for the procedure, hoping to change for his Mormon faith. But his eagerness soon crumbled.

In two particular sessions,  O’Donovan was told to visualize splitting his gay and straight selves into two beings. “Straight Connell” was himself sitting in an armchair and “Gay Connell” was a two-and-a-half foot tall terra-cotta statue, O’Donovan says.

“Then he had me visualize Jesus coming down from the ceiling and crushing the statue, breaking it into pieces and trampling Gay Connell to dust,” O’Donovan says.

O’Donovan says the therapy irreparably damaged him. Although he says he has reached a place of satisfaction with himself, he says he can no longer combine sex and love in the same relationship.

Changing Heart?

Human sexuality is often taboo within conservative faiths, especially the topic of same-sex attraction. When tensions arise between these factors, an individual caught in the middle can face feelings of shame and confusion as he or she seeks to elucidate his or her identity.

For those seeking to realign themselves with the norms of their church or faith, conversion therapy is an option for ridding oneself of unwanted urges. Conversion therapy, also known as change, reversion or reparative therapy, attempts to transmute an individual with homosexual attractions into a heterosexual.

 Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

A politically complex procedure, conversion therapy is seen as damaging on one end, while seen as a right on the other.
Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

Pop culture has confused conversion therapy with a movement known as “pray away the gay,” which is a wholly religious exercise that attempts to shed homosexuality through Bible study and worship.

A hot topic for the media was when Michelle Bachman’s husband, marriage therapist Marcus Bachman, and his clinic were revealed to provide gay-to-straight therapy.

Television shows have mostly lampooned the practice. “Arrested Development” featured a scared-straight seminar that went awry. “Law And Order SVU” portrayed a religious brain-washing organization that attempted to cure homosexuality, but instead only changed a lifestyle choice. Even the animated series “Archer” featured a gay character who admitted to being married for two years to a lesbian after they met in a pray away the gay church group.

The topic is ethically and politically complicated. The practice has been banned in the state of California, as well as criticized by numerous counseling and psychiatric associations.

Anti-conversion advocates say the practice is not only ineffective, but also incredibly harmful.

However, conversion advocates claim making the practice illegal infringes on an individual’s right to choose his or her way of life. Banning a pathway to personal improvement, proponents say — no matter how controversial — should rely on one’s own conscious and beliefs.

The live-and-let-live approach may appear to be a reasonable compromise, but uncertainty rejoins the issue with the inclusion of children’s wellbeing and rights.

The Chosen Path

Floyd Godfrey, a Mesa-based family therapist who also deals with conversion therapy, believes people have misconstrued the intentions of both patients and counselors. Godfrey says this misconception is especially true when it comes to children.

Godfrey says he does not work with people who say they are gay or parents who bring in their children saying they are gay. Godfrey works with individuals looking to rid themselves of unwanted homosexual attractions.

“With everyone I work with, they say, ‘This isn’t who I am,’” Godfrey says.

Godfrey says many people’s unwanted gay attractions stem from sexual abuse, paternal neglect or even a lack of masculinity. Godfrey relates the child victims of former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky.

“I worry about [banning conversion therapy],” Godfrey says. “They are preventing kids like the Sandusky victims from receiving therapy and understanding their confusion.”

O’Donovan found his dissimilar orientation to be a life-long difficulty. He says he always knew he was different and came out to his mother when he was only five years old. The young O’Donovan asked his mother what the word homosexual meant and she explained it to him.

“Oh, that’s what I am,” O’Donovan says. “She didn’t freak out or anything at that point.”

Coming out to his father, who knew his son was gay since three or four years old, proved to be more problematic for O’Donovan. Being on the receiving side of his father’s verbal abuse was difficult for him.

Robert A. Rees is a religious studies professor at UC Berkeley and says conversion therapy should be entirely outlawed. Trying to change an individual’s sexuality is cruel, he says.

“Young people who I have talked to say [conversion therapy] was very devastating and very destructive to them,” Rees says.

Rees relates his idea to the Kinsey Scale. A 0-6 scale rates an individual’s sexual attractions with heterosexual on the zero end, bisexuality in the middle and homosexuality at the other extreme.

Rees says it is not possible to wholly change an individual, but that it might be possible to shift a bisexual to only acting on straight sexual acts.

Communications junior Danny Zamora, who is head of LGBTQA Coalition, says he does not approve of conversion therapy, but does not believe in making it illegal.

“If they volunteer themselves, they are denying who they really are,” Zamora says. “They are choosing to do this. It’s their choice.”

Many gay-right activists see conversion therapy as a choice made by someone to deny who they are. Photo by Noemi Gonzalez

Many gay-right activists see conversion therapy as a choice made by someone to deny who they are.
Photo by Pauletta Tohonnie

Zamora says legally disallowing conversion therapy would impose an agenda on an individual’s choice for therapy. Zamora says this prohibition would make the gay movement just as bad as people who push their agenda on homosexuals.

Godfrey says he is opposed to aversion therapy, the use of negative reinforcements, and does not use it in his conversion sessions. Godfrey also stresses that pray away the gay is not the same as therapy.

“Its not something you just pray away,” Godfrey says. “I think that’s the biggest misconception.”

Godfrey does not support sexual conversion by pastors, priests or anyone else who is not qualified in a legitimate therapeutic process. Reparative therapy comes from the work of Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist who set up National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH) and says homosexuality stems from emotional wounds and rejection by same-gender peers.

Godfrey follows the NARTH guidelines as professionally recognized and practical guidelines. Godfrey says about 50 percent of his patients give up on treatment, but that treatment is successful if his patient finishes the program.

Hate of the Matter

Godfrey has experienced victimization, he says, when an angry gay activist threatened him.

“I am a counselor, not an activist,” Godfrey says. “I don’t know how I handle it. I just try and put it behind me so I can sleep at night.”

Godfrey says he has been misunderstood by gay activist groups who have tried to pin him as anti-gay. He says, instead, he is in no position to tell someone who they are.

“What am I going to say? I am not going to tell them they are not who they are,” Godfrey says. “Everyone ought to choose what they want to do.”

Zamora says he understands why some people feel like outsiders when they come out. Religious pressures, Zamora says, can often slow the progress of tolerance or even become hate speech.

“Ignorant things like we want to make everyone gay, or being gay is sin or should be damned, or kill the gays or that is a disease,” Zamora says.

Rees says there is a large misunderstanding of sexual orientation. While the attractions may be physical, the desire for emotional intimacy goes beyond intercourse. Marriage, Rees says, should be between people who can relate to each other and not based on physiological differences.

“People on the ends of the Kinsey Scale have no choice and the people in the middle have some choice,” Rees says.

O’Donovan says he analogizes gay-to-straight therapy to that of a black child who desires to be white.

“What therapist would help a black kid become white?” O’Donovan says. “You would teach the black kid to love himself or herself and to find pride in being African-American.

Shift

Society has taken a noticeable turn in favor of open homosexuality. Television shows like “Modern Family” and “The New Normal” explore the topic of same-sex parenting.

Politics have similarly changed. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed by Congress as of 2010. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin is the first openly gay senator.

An old director of one of Zamora’s LGBT groups gave him some words to remember.

“In 20 years, the death of LGBT groups will be tolerance,” Zamora says.

 

Reach the writer at mikurz@asu.edu