Yesterday, President Obama called for an end to reparative therapy aimed at helping gay, lesbian, and transgender youth deal with unwanted sexual desires. He cited the tragic case of a 17-year-old transgender youth, Leelah Alcorn, who stunned friends and a vast Internet audience in December by committing suicide after writing in an online suicide note that religious therapists had tried to convert him back to being a boy.
We should all feel saddened that this young person came to the conclusion that the only solution available was suicide – it was not. What Leelah needed was more empathy, less rigidity, and the freedom to say no. Grievously, that did not happen.
Yet, as troubling as this loss of life was, it was not what some want it to be – proof that reparative therapy is toxic and demeaning. What it does prove is that you can’t force anyone into becoming something they don’t want to become. Unfortunately, there are individuals who cannot (or will not) accept this axiom. For them, Leelah Alcorn is a cautionary tale.
For the rest of us, let’s be clear about something. The pathological antecedent here was not the content of the therapy, but the process of being forced to accept unwanted therapy. In other words, when choice is removed, bad things happen. So the question that must be asked is this, when an individual commits suicide because they have no choice about treatment options, how are suicide risks reduced by eliminating some of those very same options? It defies reason. Apparently, Leelah felt hopeless because of the inability to opt out of reparative therapy. But what do we do to the hope of others who are shackled with the same inability – although directed towards a different end?
Perhaps it would be helpful to review some history and heed the words of those who shaped it.
How We Got Here
The American Psychiatric Association
According to the American Psychiatric Association, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness. Freud had alluded to homosexuality numerous times in his writings, while other psychiatrists wrote copiously on the subject, and homosexuality was treated on a wide basis. There was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualized as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated. And homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in DSM-II. (The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – is the APA’s standard classification of mental disorders.)
Then in 1970 gay activists protested against the APA convention in San Francisco. These scenes were repeated in 1971, and as people came out of the “closet” and felt empowered politically and socially, the APA directorate became increasingly uncomfortable with their stance. In 1973 the APA’s nomenclature task force recommended that homosexuality be declared normal. The trustees were not prepared to go that far, but they did vote to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses by a vote of 13 to 0, with 2 abstentions. This decision was confirmed by a vote of the APA membership, and homosexuality was no longer listed in the seventh edition of DSM-II, which was issued in 1974.
What’s noteworthy about this is that the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses was not triggered by some scientific breakthrough. There was no new fact or set of facts that stimulated this major change. Rather, it was the simple reality that gay people started to protest. They gained a voice and began to make themselves heard. And the APA reacted with truly astonishing speed. So all the people who had been suffering from the condition were “cured” overnight – by a vote! Imagine if the United Nations World Health Organization’s 1967 decision to eradicate smallpox had used the same strategy and simply voted it into normalcy. The disease would, no doubt, still be here with us. But instead, after a truly staggering amount of dedication and hard work, smallpox became a thing of the past by 1977. The overall point being that the APA’s change in its taxonomy was nothing more than self-serving. Real disorders are not banished by voting or by fiat, but by valid science and hard work.
Also noteworthy is the fact that the vote of the membership was by no means unanimous. Only about 55% of the members who voted favored the change.
In his book, Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far, Dr. Charles Socarides details these momentous events from the inside as an eye witness. He recounts how the American Psychiatric Association was coerced and blackmailed into normalizing homosexuality. Socarides was a life member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, where he chaired a discussion group, and an affiliate member of the Royal Society of Medicine in London, United Kingdom.
The American Psychological Association
In 2012, Dr. Nicholas Cummings, a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), who also introduced the motion to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1975, says that the APA has been taken over by “gay rights activists,” who refuse to allow an open debate on reparative therapy for homosexuality.
Dr. Cummings was President of the APA from 1979 to 1980, and also served as a member of the organization’s Council of Representatives. He served for years as Chief of Mental Health with the Kaiser-Permanente Health Maintenance Organization, and is the author of the book “Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm.”
In an interview in April of 2012, Cummings said that the organization’s problems began with the rejection of the Leona Tyler Principle, which required that all public positions of the APA be supported by scientific evidence.
“If I had to choose now, I would see a need to form an organization that would recruit straight white males, which are underrepresented today in the APA,” he said.
Cummings says that he personally is not in opposition to the homosexual movement, including gay “marriage,” pointing out that he was the author of the motion to strike homosexuality from the APA’s list of mental illnesses. However, he is distressed at the loss of scientific objectivity at the organization.
“The first time it came up, and I was a member of [the] Council, this would have been, oh, 1975, because I remember that that’s when I made the resolution,” Cummings said. “I made the resolution that being gay was not a mental illness, that it was characterological. And it passed the Council of Representatives. And that was the first issue that came up. I also said with that, that the APA, if it passes this resolution, will also vote to continue research that demonstrates whatever the research demonstrates. Unbiased, open research. It was never done.”
Cummings recalls his own work with homosexuals who wanted to leave the gay lifestyle during his tenure at Kaiser Permanente.
“It’s a difficult therapy, and it’s not huge in terms of numbers, but yes we have seen success, and this is why the stance that ‘you can never change’—it’s absurd. All you have to do is find one exception and it knocks down the ‘never.’ But yes, I’ve experienced more than one exception,” said Cummings. In the past, he has said 20 percent of the homosexuals who came to him to change did so.
Here is Dr. Cummings speaking in 2011:
“Admittedly we had failures. The recidivism along the way with some would be intense, but we experience the same thing with treating substance abuse and alcoholism. Falling off the wagon is part of the treatment.”
Cummings’s position as a past president of the APA and as the author of the motion to remove homosexuality from the organization’s list of mental illnesses, parallels that of Dr. Robert Spitzer, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who led the efforts there to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness two years earlier. Spitzer also became critical of the American Psychiatric Association in the following decades and authored a study in 2000 indicating that “highly motivated” homosexuals could be successful in altering their sexual preferences through reparative therapy.
Although Spitzer recently repudiated his study, which was published in the peer-reviewed Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2002, after years of pressure from homosexual activists, Cummings has never retracted his endorsement of the view that homosexuals can sometimes change.
The former president of the American Psychological Association says political correctness and homosexual ideology rule the organization, and that leaving the homosexual “lifestyle” is indeed a possibility, a position contrary to that of the APA.
Cummings revealed an APA committee that considered the possibility of successful reparative therapy would not permit supporters of that therapy on the committee. “[T]his kind of bias prevails in the APA all under the scientific aura,” he said. “[T]he APA has become a monolith . . . Political correctness rules not science . . . For years, about 200 to 250 people were running the AP,” he said, “and they were a very select, inbred group.”
Cummings stressed that he favors “gay rights” and “gay marriage,” but he says an individual must decide what to do with his or her orientation, not the APA or homosexual activists. He says people have a right to disagree about “gay rights” and “gay marriage,” but that among the APA leadership “that’s not allowed. You only hear one side of the issue.”
What Is Reparative Therapy?
All therapy for most any purpose can be considered “reparative.” The term “Reparative Therapy” has been used to describe psychoanalytic types of intervention for same-sex attracted individuals who desire to pursue change. Practitioners of RT use a number of standard therapeutic interventions with this population. Some of these other approaches include cognitive, interpersonal, narrative, and group interventions, often in combination. As with treating other clinical issues, there are varying approaches used; some may be better suited than others. There are different paths into and different paths out of homosexuality.
Does Reparative Therapy Work?
Consider the following testimonial:
Who Supports Reparative Therapy?