Thursday, June 28, 2007

Former "gay conversion" officials apologize

Exodus International is the leading practitioner of something known as "conversion therapy" or "reparitive therapy," in which homosexuals are "healed" of their affliction through prayer, religion and counseling, becoming happy, healthy heterosexuals.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to be skeptical of this approach. For one particularly trenchant commentary, consider a Salon writer's account of his session with one such "therapist" -- who, among other things, made false claims about psychology's stance on homosexuality. He also said homosexuality was "highly correlated" with poor hand-eye coordination (you know, bad at sports), childhood loneliness (lonely kids are apparently more likely to masturbate, which somehow leads to being gay), wanting love from a distant father (thwarted filial affection turns into generalized sexual desire) and a whole lot more fluff.

Now, on the eve of Exodus' annual conference in Irvine, Calif., three former top executives at Exodus are apologizing for their actions on behalf of the group. They were sincere, they say, but they eventually came to realize the harm they were causing.

The three are Michael Bussee, a co-founder of Exodus; Jeremy Marks, former president of Exodus' European operations; and Darlene Bogle, founder and former director of an Exodus referral agency in California.

"Some who heard our message were compelled to try to change an integral part of themselves, bringing harm to themselves and their families," the three, including former Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, said in a joint written statement presented at the news conference. "Although we acted in good faith, we have since witnessed the isolation, shame, fear and loss of faith that this message creates."...

All three said they had known people who had tried to change their sexual orientation with the help of the group but had failed, often becoming depressed or even suicidal as a result.

To his credit, Exodus president Alan Chambers acknowledges problems while defending his organization.

"Exodus is here for people who want an alternative to homosexuality," Chambers said. "There are thousands of people like me who have overcome this. I think there's room for more than one opinion on this subject, and giving people options isn't dangerous."

He added that sexual orientiation "isn't a light switch that you can switch on and off."

Well no kidding.

Things like reparative therapy will always be able to claim some "success" because of two things: the power of the human mind and the fact that sexual orientation is more of a spectrum than a pair of opposites. Let's deal with each in turn.

The adaptability of the human mind is legendary. Given time, people are able to accustom themselves to situations that, looked at from a distance, would seem completely degrading, impossible or entirely undesirable. On the negative side, it's why we have things like genital mutilation, the "untouchable" castes in India and people living in garbage dumps. On the positive side, it's the determination behind incredible feats, like the marathon monks of Japan.

Sexual orientation is a strong force, but given the range of things humans can adapt themselves to, it's not an insurmountable one. If the societal norm were homosexuality and someone really, really, really wanted to fit in, they could probably find a way to accomodate the need to take a same-sex mate.

This becomes even more true if you view sexuality as a spectrum. In that view, most humans have a mix of same- and opposite-sex attractions, with the only difference being the ratio between them. The spectrum probably looks like a lopsided, inverted bell curve, with most of the population clustered at either end of the scale. A practicing heterosexual, for example, might be 99% hetero and 1% homo.

Such people have little inclination and absolutely no need to address the 1% -- indeed, they may be entirely unaware of it. But a certain percentage of the population is more mixed, becoming increasingly bisexual: 80/20, 70/30, 60/40, 50/50 and all the way through to the other end of the scale, where the most strongly identifying homosexuals reside.

If you accept that view, then it's possible to understand how a 60/40 homosexual, for example, might be able to suppress the 60 and express the 40 in order to fit in and gain societal acceptance. Or, with far greater mental effort, a 90/10 homosexual could do the same thing.

But at that point you have to stop and ask: Why? What's the point? Is there any rational basis to the societal bias against homosexuality? And is it either fair, reasonable or humane to push gays to get "fixed"?

Then, too, consider the situation where a group points to a 60/40 who was cured, by way of increasing the pressure on a 90/10 to view himself as both "there's something wrong with me" and "I'm too weak-willed to fix it." When the situations aren't remotely parallel, and all in service of... what?

I'll grant Exodus' Chambers the philosophical point that "choice is good," and if gays think they can become nongay they have every right to make the attempt. But that facile justification ignores the source of the problem -- societal bias. Wanting to "go straight" isn't generally something that comes from within. It's most often a reaction to discrimination imposed from without.

Chambers' argument also ignores the complexity of sexual orientation, and in that area groups like Exodus are complicit. They acknowledge that change is hard, but they don't acknowledge that sexuality isn't binary, and so change is harder for some than for others.

I respect monks that can run marathons every day. I just don't see why that sort of effort is a reasonable thing to ask gays to attempt simply because society is uncomfortable with them. It's a "blame the victim" approach that fails any society-level cost-benefit analysis. On an individual level it may pass such an analysis, but only because of pervasive social bias against gays. And the analysis is warped when people are misled by bad science and false claims perpetrated by groups like Exodus.

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