QUACKS: ‘Conversion Therapists,’ the Anti-LGBT Right, and the Demonization of Homosexuality

Mark Potok, QUACKS: ‘Conversion Therapists,’ the Anti-LGBT Right, and the Demonization of Homosexuality. Southern Poverty Law Center, 25 May 2016. “Will standing in a circle of naked men deep in the woods turn gay men straight? Is disrobing in front of a mirror alone with your therapist and then touching “your masculinity” a cure for homosexuality? Does beating a pillow representing your mother really help develop “healthy” relationships with other men? The men and women who people this industry known as “conversion,” “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapists are like modern-day phrenologists, the “experts” beloved by the Nazis who thought they could identify inferior human beings by measuring their subjects’ skulls. They employ theories that have been thoroughly debunked by virtually all relevant medical associations. They cite bizarre studies that were shot down decades ago as key documents. They use techniques that were described in court by one expert as “worse than snake oil.” They are quacks…. The real science is perfectly clear. A consensus of the vast majority of psychiatrists, psychologists and other counselors and their professional organizations agree that homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality. Likewise, they condemn reparative therapy and other attempts to change sexual orientation. This report is built around revelations that emerged from a lawsuit that was tried in New Jersey last year [2015]. Represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and other attorneys, several gay plaintiffs sued Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH (formerly Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), under a state consumer fraud law.”

The case did not go well for JONAH. The judge in the case barred almost all testimony from the six experts proffered by the defendants, saying that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it instead is outdated and refuted.” In the end, the plaintiffs won a hands down victory and JONAH went out of business. But in depositions and the trial itself, the creepy world of reparative therapy was laid bare.

Nude group exercises and one-on-one therapy, re-enactments of past sexual abuse, group cuddling, and counseling blaming parents were normal. Bizarre practices included using anti-LGBT slurs, basketballs and even a pair of oranges representing testicles. Plaintiffs were told that living as gay men would reduce their lifespans, subject them to terrible diseases, and ensure miserable lives.

The practice of reparative therapy, which one expert estimates has been administered to one in three LGBT youths in recent years, is unconscionable, particularly when it is forced on young people by parents who are often trying to do what they think is best for their children. A number of experts have shown clearly that such therapy is unethical and utterly counterproductive….

Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapy, is on the ropes. Virtually all relevant U.S. medical associations plus, just this March, the world’s largest professional association of psychiatrists have condemned it. In the last four years, four states and two cities have outlawed its use with minors. One after another, both secular and religious ex-gay groups have been embarrassed by gay sex scandals involving their founders or top officers. And the civil suit against JONAH which produced hair raising testimony about nude counseling sessions, group cuddling exercises, bizarre re-enactments and other “therapy” exposed the creepy world of the conversion therapy industry and the quacks who run it….

Although some ancient societies, like the Greeks and many American Indian tribes, accepted homosexuality as normal, gay men and women through the ages have been subjected to a litany of horrors, from castration to burning at the stake to the “anal pear,” which ripped apart a man’s insides (a “vaginal pear” was used for women judged deviant). But starting in the late 19th century, as medicine and faith in the scientific method blossomed, there were many who sought to “cure” any number of sexual practices seen as “deviant,” chief among them homosexuality.

The results were not enlightening.

A German baron claimed to cure scores of gay men through hypnosis. An American neurologist proposed riding bicycles for the same purpose, while a doctor suggested the use of cocaine solutions and strychnine shots for lesbians. A Viennese endocrinologist transplanted a testicle from a straight man to a gay man and claimed a complete conversion. Swiss experts reported that castration was effective….

An American neurologist perfected the “icepick” lobotomy to expunge homosexuality and other conditions, killing as many as 100 people in the process. Convulsive therapies, ranging from the use of drugs like metrazol and insulin to electric shock, began to spread. A Danish endocrinologist experimented on gay concentration camp prisoners at Buchenwald. A British psychologist injected gay patients with nausea-inducing drugs while playing recordings of men having sex. Even Masters and Johnson, the pioneering sexologists who were the first to show that homosexuality is common, claimed that gay people could be converted.

But it was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, whose ideas about homosexuality, developed in the first decades of the 20th century, formed the basis of what most conversion therapists today believe. Although Freud did not demonize gay people and doubted that sexual orientation could be changed, he did see homosexuality in both men and women as a form of arrested psychosexual development.

In the hands of later conversion therapists, Freud’s ideas about the “triadic family” were developed to theorize that gay men were the product of families with an overbearing, dominant mother, a distant and weak father, and a sensitive child. The boy was said to thus fail to mature into a close relationship with his father, and ultimately to seek to replace that relationship by having sex with other men. A closely related theory blames early childhood trauma like sexual molestation.

Today, the consensus of the vast majority of psychologists, psychiatrists and other counselors is that that model is entirely false….

The year 1973 was epic both for LGBT people and for the about to be born reparative therapy movement.

On the one hand, the American Psychiatric Association, which had listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” since 1952, declassified it as a mental illness, removing it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The move came as the nascent gay rights movement, birthed by the 1969 Stonewall Riots, struggled in the face of widespread bigotry and burgeoning attacks from a rapidly expanding fundamentalist religious right.

On the other hand, the year saw the creation of Love in Action, the nation’s first contemporary reparative therapy ministry….

In many ways, the time was ripe for the reparative therapy movement. LGBT people were more in the public eye, and the religious right was looking for ways to remain engaged with an increasingly tolerant society. Rather than simply demonize gay people, reparative therapists latched on to the idea that gay people could change, that homosexuality was a sin like many others but did not have to be a permanent affliction….

But there was a more cynical reason as well. If being gay, lesbian or transgender was a “choice,” as most of the religious and secular right contended, then criticizing the LGBT community would be akin to simply criticizing bad behavior. It was, in other words, fundamentally different than skin color, over which people have no control. The tactic was seen as a firewall against being attacked as gay-hating bigots. While reparative therapists might condemn the gay “lifestyle,” they could still claim to be simply trying to help people clean up their unhealthy and unhappy lives.

At the same time, with the rise of many types of religious fundamentalism, growing numbers of young men and women felt painful conflicts between their own urges and the prohibitions of their faiths. As a result, there was an enormous market of Christians, Jews, Mormons and others who faced condemnation by their co-religionists if they acted on their attractions to members of their own sex.

For a time, therefore, the movement expanded rapidly….

In 1998, the drive to portray homosexuality as changeable culminated in a $600,000 newspaper ad campaign, entitled “Truth in Love,” that was funded by 15 religious-right groups, “the Normandy landing of the culture war,” according to a Family Research Council official. The poster children of this campaign were John and Anne Paulk, who said they were formerly gay but now happily married. A photo of the couple ran on the cover of Newsweek under the headline “Gay for Life?”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force reacted with alarm the next month, publishing a report entitled “Calculated Compassion.” It described the ad campaign as “re-framing its attack on homosexuality in kinder, gentler terms,” and warned that the ex-gay industry was undermining the battle for LGBT rights by suggesting that homosexuality is a choice, not an unchangeable condition like skin color.

But by then, the ex-gay movement already was in trouble….

The idea that gay people could convert to heterosexuality began to unravel within a few short years of the first ex-gay groups’ formation [1970s]. Over the course of the next four decades, that claim received a battering of biblical proportions….

After the religious right’s expensive 1998 ad campaign brought the reparative therapy movement to national attention, things went from bad to worse. It started the same year, with the horrific murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. The much publicized killing illustrated the violence that LGBT people faced.

Then, in 1999, Russ Goringe, one of the first board members of the Mormon reparative therapy group Evergreen International, found himself hiking in the mountains with his wife and four children. In despair over his continuing same-sex attractions, he says he was about to commit suicide by leaping off a rope bridge when one of his daughters saw and stopped him. In the aftermath, he reevaluated his beliefs, divorced his wife and, with his children’s support, married a man….

The reparative therapy movement was also seriously damaged as professional organization after professional organization followed the lead of the American Psychiatric Association in declassifying homosexuality as a disorder. Over the years, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Medical Association, the American School Counselor Association, the American School Health Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association all issued similar statements. Each one also condemned the practice of conversion therapy….

…[T]he most dramatic blow to hit reparative therapy came in 2013, when Exodus International President Alan Chambers, who had grown increasingly critical of the movement, led his board to close down what was the largest religiously based conversion therapy group in the country. Chambers profusely apologized for the “pain and hurt” Exodus had caused and criticized reparative theory. His words sent shock waves through the entire American conversion therapy industry.

Still, it was late in the game for at least two generations of LGBT people, particularly youths. According to 2012 court testimony by Dr. Caitlin Ryan, an expert who works with the Family Acceptance Project, as many as one in three American LGBT youths had by then been subjected to conversion therapy.

Many of those people have reported being harmed as a result. And the evidence is not merely anecdotal. The Columbia University Law School recently reviewed the 13 peer reviewed studies that did primary research on conversion therapy over the prior 30 years. Twelve of them “concluded that [conversion therapy] is ineffective and/ or harmful, finding links to depression, suicidality, anxiety, social isolation and decreased capacity for intimacy.” The practice, it concluded, “can be extremely harmful.”…

In November 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against JONAH, founder Arthur Goldberg, affiliated counselor Alan Downing, and Alan Downing Life Coaching LLC. Although the suit would not go to trial until 2015, the 2014 depositions of JONAH’s would be experts already foreshadowed problems in the courtroom. The men seemed to have only the loosest grip on the scientific facts. One was described by the judge as a plagiarizer. At the same time, the judge, in addition to barring all of their testimony on conversion therapy, pointed out that “the JONAH experts’ reports are riddled with methodological errors that also render their opinions inadmissible” and slammed their “refusal to consider studies” that didn’t support their views….

The court heard how JONAH founder Arthur Goldberg encouraged potential clients with claims, such as one recounted by Bella Levin, that “he would be able to fix Chaim, that he wouldn’t be gay any more.” (JONAH asserted about a third of its clients became heterosexual, a third advanced in that direction, and a third saw no change.) And it came out that Goldberg, who had allowed himself to be addressed as “doctor” and “rabbi” although he was neither, was a convicted con man. In 1989, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in a $2 billion municipal bond scheme. The prosecutor said Goldberg, who was later disbarred, was a man who “habitually took advantage of people” and “did not hesitate to lie or cheat or cover up.”…

On June 24, 2015, the jury in Judge Bariso’s courtroom unanimously found JONAH had committed consumer fraud and engaged in unconscionable commercial practices under New Jersey law by selling services that it claimed could change clients from gay to straight. In December, as part of a settlement, JONAH agreed to close its doors and its principals promised to cease all related commerce and to resign any leadership posts in ex-gay groups. The plaintiffs were awarded $72,400, and JONAH agreed to pay some of their legal fees.

It was hardly a surprise, given the dramatic testimony of the plaintiffs, the defendants, and some of the genuine experts who were allowed to testify. One of those experts was Lee Beckstead, a psychologist with expertise on sexual orientation change efforts and a member of the American Psychological Association task force that examined them. Beckstead testified that “healthy touch” is “a form of sexual abuse.” He said that nudity in one-on-one counseling sessions is “unconscionable.” He stated that the exercises involving anti-gay slurs were “sadistic.”…

In the aftermath of the JONAH trial and all that preceded it, conversion therapy is under siege. A large number of states are considering bans on providing it to minors. The president has denounced it. A bill now pending in Congress would make it illegal to advertise or sell. Americans who provide it are going to Israel to set up their practices in a less hostile environment. Horror stories like those told by the JONAH plaintiffs have been featured in countless media accounts.

James Bromley, an attorney with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who assisted in the case, put it like this in concluding remarks to the JONAH jury: “Too many years out of an office here in Jersey City, less than two miles from this courthouse, Goldberg, [JONAH co-founder Elaine] Berk and Downing have been operating with scalpels on the minds of young gay men from around the world. They’ve been operating without licenses. They’ve been operating without training. And they have been operating without science to back up any of their crackpot theories. They lied and that is wrong.”