Can therapy make gay people straight?
Originially published in Salon.com.
THE NIGHT JOHN WESTCOTT walked into his first meeting of Eleutheros, he had no idea where his life was heading—but he knew that he desperately wanted it to change. “Pray for me,” he had announced to friends several months earlier. “I’m walking out of Egypt.”
With that, he told his boyfriend he was leaving their eight-year relationship, moving out of their Florida home and renouncing his homosexuality. “This isn’t what the Lord wants for you,” he said, sitting across the kitchen counter as his partner cooked up a batch of pork chops. “It isn’t what the Lord wants for me. I never wanted to be this way.”
Eleutheros, a Christian ministry that advertises “freedom from homosexuality,” seemed like the way out for Westcott, a 38-year-old financial adviser. There, in a 12-by-12 room with fluorescent lighting and metal folding chairs, he met other men who were struggling with their same-sex attractions. Some were married and cheating on their wives. Many had been abused as children or abandoned by their fathers. Like Westcott, a fair number had suffered through drug abuse or alcoholism. Regardless of what circumstances had brought them there, all shared the same hope: that their lives would improve immeasurably if they could just learn how to be hetero.
Is that possible—and more importantly, is it a dangerous thing to even attempt? Those are the questions lurking behind the firestorm that tore through last week’s American Psychiatric Association convention in Chicago. The APA had scheduled a panel discussion on whether homosexuality could be eliminated through something called “reparative” or “reorientation” therapy—but canceled the event after two psychiatrists withdrew from the program, claiming the issue was too politically loaded for objective discussion.
The cancellation brought howls from Exodus International, an umbrella organization of ex-gay Christian ministries, which picketed the main entrance hall of the meeting and placed a $53,000 full-page ad in Wednesday’s USA Today. “I think APA is running scared because there are thousands of people who are benefiting from reparative therapy. I’m extremely disappointed that they’re backing away from open discussion,” says Exodus director Bob Davies. “The ex-gay movement is reaching a critical mass, where our stories can no longer be denied. We’re not going away.”
Ex-gay leaders claim they provide an authentic conversion experience for those who want to reverse their sexual orientations. “Change is the byproduct of inner healing,” says Richard Cohen, a Maryland therapist who uses a combination of techniques ranging from cradling his male patients to teaching them problem-solving skills. “By going into the well and into the shadow, they will find their secrets. And when they heal the wounds, they will come into their full gender identity. The byproduct will be a falling-away of their same-sex attractions.” Cohen admits he has been successful with “a very small percentage of his clients”; most ex-gay leaders claim a success rate of about 30 percent.
“It takes a lot of work,” Cohen says, “and that’s not popular in this instant bullion-cube Campbell’s soup world.”
To the psychiatric establishment, there’s a more plausible explanation for this low “success” rate: It’s because sexuality is an immutable fact of life that cannot—and should not—be altered with therapy. Every mainstream mental-health organization has disavowed practitioners like Cohen. They say therapy rarely changes sexual orientations, but instead imbues clients with a sense of failure and permanent burden of guilt.
“You can change some people’s behavior with some combination of reward and punishment,” says San Francisco psychoanalyst Christopher Wallis. “On the other hand, their internal life, that’s a lot harder to change. The danger is that some individuals are going to end up feeling that in some important way their life is a lie and a sham.”
Lost amidst the polarized rhetoric are the men and women who attend these Christian ministries and secular therapists. Why would somebody renounce homosexuality and try to become straight? What type of need do these programs tap into? How to they work? Do they succeed? When ex-gays profess to having a new sexual orientation, what does that really mean? Have they shed all their attractions? Or are they merely suppressing them, the way a recovering alcoholic fights daily against the urge to drink?
Trying to make sense of these questions, I’ve interviewed about 20 lesbians and gay men who have gone through ex-gay programs with various results. And over the course of a year, I’ve spent several days—not to mention hours on the telephone—with John Westcott, one of thousands of men and women who claim to have recovered from homosexuality. The more we talked, the clearer it became that neither side has a monopoly on the truth. When you look closely at a single life, all the crisp black-and-white answers dissolve into a muddy gray.
CONVERSION THERAPISTS BELIEVE that male homosexuality stems directly from a stunted relationship between a child and his father. “As a result of failure with father, the boy does not fully internalize male gender-identity,” writes renegade psychologist Joseph Nicolosi in his book Reparative Therapy for Male Homosexuality. “Then when sexual needs begin to seek expression in early adolescence, it is understandable that the direction of such a young man’s sexual interests will be away from the familiar and toward the unapproachable. We do not sexualize what we are familiar with.”
Almost every ex-gay male I’ve interviewed starts his story by talking about his father, and John Westcott is no exception, speaking passionately about the man who walked out of his life when he was 15. Westcott’s dad was a burly guy with a racetrack haircut and tattooed arms that looked like Popeye’s. A part-time commercial fisherman, he had the leathery skin of someone who spent his afternoons steering a fishing boat up and down the St. John’s River. Those were the only times Westcott ever spent with his dad—times the older man would get home from his day job as a Navy career counselor and rouse his son from “Lost in Space.”
“Get changed. You’re going in the boat,” he’d say, his voice flat. At first, Westcott had hoped it would be fun to help his dad fish, but it never was. His hands got cold, and even worse, he and his father never talked.
Throughout his childhood, in fact, father and son rarely had a conversation. Westcott envied other boys. He remembered being 9 years old, sitting in the back of the Chevy truck in his driveway, watching a neighbor and his son wrestling next door. Running into the bedroom he shared with his brother, Westcott threw himself onto the bottom bunk.
“Why does my dad not love me?” he remembers asking God. “What have I done to keep my father from wanting to spend time with me?” At church, Westcott would see older men and imagine performing oral sex on them. If he sucked them off, maybe they would pay attention to him, the way his father never did.
He finally acted out this fantasy with a lanky 16-year-old with brown hair and the beginnings of a mustache. “Ricky” wasn’t handsome but he was male, and Westcott liked to hang out in the small trailer park where his friend lived. Ricky’s prized possession was his van, a green ambulance-like vehicle that reminded Westcott of something from M*A*S*H.
“Bet you can’t get it to run,” Westcott teased one day as Ricky tinkered with the engine. “Well, if I get it running,” Ricky answered, “you have to give me a blow job.” Westcott knew Ricky could get the engine started; he knew he’d lose the dare. But he accepted it anyway.
Afterwards, Westcott hated what he had done, and hated himself. But later he came back for more.
At 18, Westcott found work at Parliament House, a gay resort in an old-fashioned Orlando motor lodge. He moved into an efficiency apartment right in the motel, and the resort became his world. He and the front doorman went to flea markets and beach parties together. There were afternoons by the pool, and nights spent waiting tables or tending the bar. After the bar closed, Westcott attended parties where speed and cocaine flowed like Budweiser. Westcott loved his new community—where no one rejected him for being gay—but every so often his high school loneliness returned to him. He didn’t question the morality of his life, but he questioned his future. Westcott had never stopped fantasizing about a wife and kids and a house and a dog. Even with all his friends, it felt horribly lonely when he wasn’t dating. He would go out to dinner, look around and see married couples with children, and he’d feel a deep, inexorable sense of loss.
One day he took an overdose of Quaaludes, not enough to kill him, but enough to put him into a stupor. He imagined getting in his car and racing down the freeway, watching the speedometer pass 80, 90, 100, and feeling the drugs take effect, until he could no longer control the steering wheel and the car careened into a wall. Before he followed through, however, he confessed what he had done, and one of the bar’s female impersonators took him home and tucked him into bed to sleep off the pills.
WESTCOTT’S DESPERATION MAY SEEM extreme, but his is all too common among the men and women who seek out reorientation therapies and ex-gay ministries. Plagued by drug abuse and alcoholism, haunted by parental abuse and abandonment, they end up associating their sexual orientation with destructive behavior. If only they could be straight, they reason, they might be able to start living healthy, happy lives. Many medicate their pain with furtive, anonymous sexual encounters, which in turn leads to further guilt and more destructive behavior.
Westcott never broke out of that guilt. Even after he met his male partner—and got “married” in a backyard ceremony complete with a three-tiered wedding cake—he never learned to accept his homosexuality. So at the age of 29, Westcott attended his first Eleutheros meeting. There, he joined an “accountability group,” eight men to whom he was required to report every homosexual contact, every same-sex fantasy, every trip to a gay bar, every masturbation, every peek at pornography. Usually, he returned each week with a clean, or nearly clean, report card.
“So how’s John doing today?” the program director would ask. “I’m doing fine,” he would say. “John’s always doing fine,” the director would say, laughing. Westcott resented the implication that he was covering up his misdeeds. But he persisted.
In another Eleutheros support group, Westcott and seven other men were instructed to write letters to their fathers, letters they would never send. Westcott had always been skeptical of the parent theory, but as he thought of his relationship with his father, he felt himself raging like he did when he was 15. For abandoning him. For cheating on and then leaving his mother. For refusing to spend time with Westcott when he was still around. Westcott started to write, and the words poured out furiously. Before he even caught his breath, he had scribbled three pages.
It wasn’t long after that Westcott met a woman named Dena, a former lesbian who had also sought help from Eleutheros. They immediately connected—at least on an emotional level. Westcott didn’t feel much sexual attraction at first, and he worried that he never would, knowing that some of his friends still needed to fantasize about men during sex with their wives. “God, if that’s the case, I don’t want to be married,” he prayed. But a sexual attraction developed—after all, Westcott had always felt some attraction to women. Now married, the couple lives in suburban Orlando with their two sons, and their life together looks pretty similar to that of any married couple of seven years. They feed the kids. They visit relatives. They have sex and say they enjoy it, though less and less frequently now that the children have arrived.
But did Eleutheros fundamentally change Westcott’s sexual orientation? “To this day, for me to tell you that I’m not attracted to men would be a lie,” he admits. “I still see men and I think, ‘Wow, that man’s attractive.’ It might cause some adrenaline to start running. But I know when that happens that I can stop. We used to have a thing in the ministry that we called HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Whenever you had a sexual fantasy and it began taking control, HALT. Are you hungry for other male fellowship? Are you angry at somebody, angry at your parent? Are you lonely? So I’ve learned how to deal with that.”
Given his tortured background, I believe Westcott when he says that he’s happier than he has ever been, in his family’s suburban home with the minivan and backyard pool and two cute sons. In the same way, many ex-gays are better off than before they entered the ministries or therapy programs. They’re confronting childhood sexual abuse or abandonment; they’re living without drugs and alcohol; they have people in their lives who nurture them. As a result, their compulsion to have “unrewarding sex” lessens—and it feels like they are being cured of their homosexuality.
But almost every “ex-gay” I’ve interviewed has copped to having same-sex attractions—and a few admit to having no heterosexual feelings whatsoever. In other words, even though they may have changed many things, they haven’t changed that single fact of their own desire.
For most of us, this persistent desire only reinforces the notion that homosexuality is an immutable force, not some disorder that can be driven from the psyche. But John Westcott comes to a different conclusion: that family trauma scars deeply, that “recovery” is never a permanent thing, that homosexuality—as with AA’s vision of alcoholism—is something that needs to be fought by every gay man who wants out.
“I had some friends who were just here for a week,” he says. “They’re married and have three children. And the husband was talking to me. He said, ‘I hate it. Why is it that I see a man and I’m attracted to him?’ I said, ‘You know, I think we missed it. Because our dads didn’t nurture us when we were children, I think there’s a void. And even though we can fill it now, there’s that hole there. You keep pouring in. But it’s got a little leak at the bottom, and it’s never gonna stay full.'”
Most therapists would say that this “leak” cannot be filled with a generic (if wholesome) family life that stifles passion. For these experts, ex-gays like Westcott have merely learned to repress their homosexuality and it is religious guilt—not gay sex—which creates the dangerous elixir that leads people down a path of self-hatred and abuse.
“We need desperately to separate the concept of sexual behavior from gender orientation,” says Terry Norman, a counselor in Kansas City. “If a straight man is confined to prison, he might behave homosexually, but he’s not gay. Likewise, pseudo-heterosexualism doesn’t make a gay man straight.”
The suppression theory of sexual reorientation makes good sense. Given the intensely censorious right-wing and religious overtones of these anti-gay therapies, and their self-confessed low success rates, it’s difficult to accept that they are in fact purging homosexuality so much as pushing it ever more into the shadow lives of the patients’ anguished psyches.
But ex-gay programs can make a man think he’s straight, Norman adds. “We suppress and suppress and suppress,” he explains, “until one day we ourselves believe the lie.”