Into the closet

Can therapy make gay people straight?


Barry Yeoman
May 22, 2000 10:18PM (UTC)

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."

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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.

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"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."

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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.

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"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 prize 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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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."


Barry Yeoman

Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to OnEarth, his work has appeared in Discover; O, The Oprah Magazine; AARP The Magazine; and Audubon.

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