To find out how "reparative therapy" works, I pretended to be gay. My licensed Christian therapist explained to me why homosexuality is a mental disorder, what the "Wizard of Oz principle" is, and why kids who can't "hit the ball or fire the gun" are more likely to be gay.
Barry Levy, a Christian counselor and licensed clinical social worker, is explaining to me what causes homosexuality. “Take the young boy who is more sensitive, more delicate, who doesn’t like rough-and-tumble, who is artistic,” he says. “He can’t hit the ball, fire the gun or shoot an arrow. There is a high correlation between poor eye-hand coordination and same-sex attraction.”
I am sitting in an overstuffed chair in Levy’s office in suburban Rockville, Md. The metal blinds are mostly shut. Tissues are at hand on a small coffee table. Levy is a middle-aged white man with a gentle voice. He wears a button-down Oxford shirt and pleated khakis hiked a bit too high. He stares at me serenely across the beige carpet, his legs crossed, giving me a warm smile.
I was referred to Levy by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, which claims on its Web site that homosexuality can be treated and prevented. “While the Bible clearly states that homosexuality runs contrary to God’s plan for relationships, those who struggle with homosexual feelings are still God’s children, in need of His forgiveness and healing,” the group states. Conservative Christians say curing gays comes from loving them. “Compassion — not bigotry — compels us to support the healing of homosexuals,” says the Family Research Council.
Levy practices what is called “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, which allegedly helps homosexuals become heterosexuals. The theory that homosexuality is a mental disorder that needs to be cured is the moral underpinning of the Christian right’s crusade against gay marriage, sodomy laws, gay adoption and sex ed curriculums in schools. While all major modern mental health professions say conversion therapy is baseless and potentially dangerous, I wanted to experience for myself what is going on behind counselors’ closed doors.
When I arrived in Levy’s office, I was asked to fill out roughly 15 pages of questions about myself and my family. Mostly the questions centered on how I got along with my folks. In a section about my problems, I wrote “possible homosexuality.” The fact is, I’m straight, I’m married to a woman, and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a son due in October. I wrote on the form that that I was married with a kid. But I lied and said I was also living a secret life, that I harbored homosexual urges.
According to the Bible, Levy says, homosexuality “is not consistent with the manufacturer’s desire. It is not what the body is for. It is not what procreation is for. It is not what life energy is for. I am going to draw you out of that because the people around you are into that.” To receive God in his holiness, Levy tells me, to experience the ultimate happiness for which God created men and women, a person needs to overcome any homosexual feelings.
Homosexuality, Levy asserts, is a mental disorder, a certifiable neurosis. “The psychoanalytic perspective has always considered homosexuality and same-sex attraction to be a neurosis. They still do and they still treat it.” (In fact, mental health associations do not consider homosexuality a neurosis and do not “treat” patients for it. Dr. Douglas Haldeman, president of the Association of Practicing Psychologists, a group affiliated with the American Psychological Association, says it is wrong to identify homosexuality as a neurosis. “There is no scientific evidence of that, and there is no mainstream mental health organization or profession that supports this ancient, discredited theory,” he says.)
Levy informs me that homosexuality is difficult to treat because it is about more than sexuality — it is about a way of life. “I want to make a distinction between same-sex attraction and being gay,” he says. “That is a whole ideology. It is a lifestyle. It becomes the locus, or organizing principle, of the identity of the human personality.” Reparative therapy focuses on getting gays and lesbians to stop talking or walking “gay.” One “ex-gay” program in Memphis, Tenn., Refuge, bars men from wearing jewelry, donning Calvin Klein clothes and listening to secular music.
The causes of homosexuality, Levy explains, are many, but childhood loneliness figures prominently. “When a child is neglected — if not abused, then neglected or isolated — loneliness is often experienced as genital tension,” Levy says. “When kids are understimulated, they play with themselves, and the source of greatest stimulation is obviously your genitals or your mouth.” I tell Levy I did not think I was a lonely kid. “There are more reasons,” he responds. “I got more.”
He suggests that I may lack confidence and am turning my admiration for bold and masculine men into sexual desire for them. “I call it the Wizard of Oz principle,” he says. “The lion wants courage so he can be the most courageous one on the journey. Some people call it the ‘cannibal compulsion.’ Cannibals will eat people, but only the enemies they admire. If their enemies are courageous, cannibals will eat their heart. If they are strong, they’ll eat their muscles. There is a compulsion to take into yourself the qualities you feel you’re lacking and someone else has. Eroticization is one of the ways to do that.”
He turns to a central theory of reparative therapy, which is that a son’s unrequited love for an emotionally unavailable father gets transferred into sexual desire for men. Homosexual feelings can arise, Levy says, “when a boy is not affirmed in his gender by the father, who might be mean, who might be cruel, who might be absent. Often, there is a highly conflicted relationship where the mother disparages the father. She misidentifies with the marriage and might even start to identify with the son.” Under those circumstances, Dr. Joe Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality, later tells me, “temperamentally sensitive” boys become vulnerable to homosexuality.
Levy says reparative therapy is effective, but that a cure for homosexuality takes at least two years of weekly counseling. (My one hour cost Salon $140.) He says that if I stay in therapy, I will either turn straight or get “significant relief.”
The success or failure rate for changing gays is difficult to quantify. One study, often cited by conservative groups like Focus on the Family, shows incremental success from reparative therapy. But critics point out that the study was based solely on interviews with subjects arranged by ex-gay ministries; in fact, many of them worked at the ministries.
Levy tells me that reparative therapy can be a lonely business. “There are not a lot of us who do this work,” he says. “It is politically incorrect. And it is difficult.” He also admits that “not everybody who starts down this road gets cured. This is not a sure-fire cure. I wish I could tell you that it is, but it is not.” But he remains committed.
Homosexuality “is not just another flower in God’s garden,” Levy says. “This is something that happens to people that can be fixed. And if someone comes seeking relief from this suffering, we would be wrong not to offer them relief.”
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Mark Benjamin is an award-winning investigative reporter with Salon.com’s Washington bureau. Since 2001, Benjamin has focused on national security issues with an emphasis on the plight of returning veterans and detainee abuse. He was hailed for exposing problems caring for veterans at Walter Reed starting in early 2005 and also
obtained for Salon the Army’s entire Abu Ghraib investigative files. Benjamin is the winner of a Raymond Clapper Memorial Award for the best reporting from Washington, a Fourth Estate Award from the American Legion, a Mental Health Media Award from the National Mental Health Association, an Outstanding Media Coverage Award from the National Gulf War Resource Center, a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism, and a Project Censored Award and was twice a finalist for the Online News Association’s Online Journalism Awards. He previously worked at UPI.