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Straight Talk about Straight Camp

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

May 21, 2010

Can God Cure Homosexuality?

Ted Cox is not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Like a modern-day Mata Hari, this investigative journalist went undercover to expose an “ex-gay” program. This so-called “gay to straight” conversion therapy exists because some people think there is something wrong with it.

I recently attended Cox’s lecture about his experiences, “What I learned at Straight Camp.” Held on campus at the University of California–Berkeley, a haven of freethinking and tolerance, this was a talk about the intolerance, bigotry, and hypocrisy of the ex-gay movement.

“Homosexuality is an abomination” is the catch-cry of this movement, but the criminalization of homosexuality, incidences of the “correctional rape” of men and women, and other hate crimes that have been committed globally suggest that the true abomination is discrimination. From the trials of Oscar Wilde to the use of Electro-Convulsive Therapy as “treatment,” homosexuality has been perceived as preference, perversion, and even psychological illness. Aversion therapy, gay exorcisms, and ex-gay programs suggest that those who claim to help often cause the most damage.

Evelyn Hooker’s 1957 study The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual 1 demonstrated the psychological parallels across homosexual and heterosexual men, doing a great deal to improve the public and professional understanding of homosexuality. This work was instrumental in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) decision in 1973 to rescind the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. However, the ex-gay movement continues to see homosexuality as a condition, and a curable one at that. According to the APA, modalities claiming to convert or “repair” homosexuality are pseudoscientific and motivated by prejudice:

Recent publicized efforts to repathologize homosexuality by claiming that it can be cured are often guided not by rigorous scientific or psychiatric research, but sometimes by religious and political forces opposed to full civil rights for gay men and lesbians. APA recommends that the APA respond quickly and appropriately as a scientific organization when claims that homosexuality is a curable illness are made by political or religious groups. 2

The conversion controversy began with the appearance of ex-gay ministries in the 1970s. Love in Action was the original group, now named Exodus International. These ministries proliferated so that nearly every religion has at least one ex-gay ministry, including the Mormon Evergreen International, the Catholic Encourage, the Muslim Al-Tawbah, and the Jewish JONAH.

Cox investigated the interdenominational Christian Exodus International, the world’s largest organization of this kind. They promote “the message of Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” 3 Applicants to the program must be religious and homosexual yet desirous to be heterosexual, but the process to determine the suitability of the candidates is rigorous. Cox spent one year and almost $1,000 attending interviews, weekly support meetings, counseling, and conferences that concluded with a two-day retreat in Arizona.

In the euphemistic terminology of ex-gay groups, homosexuality is Same Sex Attraction (SSA). Exodus International and similar ministries reject the biological reasons for homosexuality and believe instead that being gay is a “lifestyle choice.” In their opinion, sexual orientation is a preference, and therefore it is possible to change one’s orientation. Cox reports that his pastor claimed, “God doesn’t make you gay. We are all born straight, but some of us are just confused as to which is the opposite sex.” These programs exist for both gay and lesbian people.

In the course of the program Cox underwent months of pseudoscientific psychotherapy. Perceived as a condition, ex-gay groups claim that homosexuality can be “cured.” Their remedies for Same Sex Attraction include therapy, role-playing exercises, meditation, Bible study, prayer, and faith. The participants were forced to attend counseling, church, and humiliating “Accountability Meetings.” Like a Weight Watchers for homosexual men, they were expected to confess publicly if they had engaged in sexual thoughts about men, masturbation, or “crotch staring.”

Their definition of “cure” is broad, and it extends to:

The courses ultimately aim to render the attendees heterosexual, “more heterosexual” than they were, or simply celibate.

Fathers feature prominently as the scapegoat in the counseling for homosexual men. In what was termed “The Father Wound,” ex-gay groups theorize that male homosexuality is a “symptom” of physical abuse or sexual abuse, perpetrated by the father. Alternatively, male homosexuality is seen as a lack of a male role model during childhood years or a product of paternal neglect. Deprived of affection from a father figure, gay men have supposedly developed a “masculine gender deficit” that can lead to homosexuality.

Like the results of Recovered Memory Therapy and the fabrication of problems, Cox states that many men became estranged from their fathers as a result of these unorthodox theories and manipulative counseling. Of course, this added considerably to the psychological issues at hand. In some cases there actually were underlying issues with the father, but this is incidental. The therapy was irrelevant to these concerns.

After this preparatory therapy, the program culminates in the “Journey into Manhood” retreat. In an article about his experiences, Cox tells of gay camp leaders and reports some of the hypocrisy that took place at the camp. 5

The participants were occupied with various activities—singing hymns and popular songs, including, ironically, music by the Village People. They were engaged in physical exercises, “manly” sports such as touch football, to increase their masculinity. They completed role-playing exercises, such as “Staring Men in the Face,” to confront their supposed emotional issues with their fathers. These were all absurd tasks, but some were disturbing. One man proceeded to strike an effigy of his father with a baseball bat as he was encouraged to “kill” his “Dad.” After symbolically beating his father to death, he was presented with an effigy of his “Golden Father,” a “new Dad.”

With audience participation, Cox demonstrated The “Safe Healing Touch” exercise. This looked like a laying on of hands, in which a group of men surrounded one subject and placed their hands on him as they prayed and sang for his sexual salvation. Cox quotes that the pastor beseeched Jesus to “come down and touch this man in a way he’s never been touched before.”

This raises some real issues. Homosexual men are often a marginalized minority, especially within conservative religious organizations. Furthermore, Western society seems to discourage the public display of sexual or even platonic intimacy between men. Ironically, Cox found this camp was a cathartic refuge for these men who felt isolated and deviant. It was also an opportunity for them to both experience and express affection toward other men in a supportive environment. Some were painfully repressed and had never revealed their sexuality to anyone else out of fear of ostracism. Some were married, often with children, and so thought they had real incentive to change. However, the programs are not intended to be mere support groups. Any therapeutic benefit is an unexpected consequence of the program, which is ostensibly intended to be curative.

So, does the “cure” work? Science says that the methods used by ex-gay programs are ineffective, pseudoscientific, and harmful. Science says that homosexuality is a normal behavioral type that has been identified in hundreds of other species of animals. Moreover, science says there is nothing to cure. But as Cox concludes, “How much does science really matter when God has spoken?” 6

Ex-gay groups claim remarkable conversion rates, but the reality is not so impressive. Like Breatharian Jasmuheen who claims to live on love and light instead of food but was spotted emerging from a McDonald’s, “ex-gay” and conversion therapy advocate John Paulk underwent a “successful conversion” but two years later was spotted in a gay bar. 7

It is interesting to note that the founders of Exodus International eventually left the organization and became ex-ex-gay.

It seems that considering oneself “ex-gay” is a change in identity, not orientation, and is a decision influenced by social and religious pressure.

Because any transformation is based in belief, not biology, Cox reports that many Journeyers are repeat attendees to the camps. Not only do these programs fail to produce the results promised, they fail to properly address the underlying psychological issues. Cox commented, “Rather than turning straight, the men and women that I met throughout this project dealt with a cycle of repression, backsliding into sin, then shame, guilt, and repentance.” 8

And there are considerable risks in ignoring the real problems. “These programs are dangerous. Ex-gay watchdog groups document the stories of men who, after years of failed attempts to become straight, resort to suicide.” 9

For any psychological suffering faced by people attempting to accept their sexuality, the psychological abuse of the ex-gay movement is infinitely more destructive.

References:

  1. Hooker, Evelyn. 1957. The adjustment of the male overt homosexual. Journal of projective techniques, 21: 18–31.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Therapies Focused on Attempts to Change Sexual Orientation (Reparative or Conversion Therapies). Accessed 05/11/2010.
  3. Exodus International; accessed 05/11/2010.
  4. Exodus International; accessed 05/12/2010.
  5. Cox, Ted. 2010. My Journey Into Manhood: Undercover at a Gay Conversion Camp; accessed 05/11/2010.
  6. ibid.
  7. Lawson, Joel. 2000. Ex-gay leader confronted in gay bar. Southern Voice.
  8. Cox, Ted. 2010. My Journey Into Manhood: Undercover at a Gay Conversion Camp; accessed 05/11/2010.
  9. ibid.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.