Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reparative therapies remain alive and well in some US states—Texas and Oklahoma included.

This billboard appeared in Dallas, Texas, in 2015. Despite widespread condemnation,
reparative (also known as "ex-gay" or "reorientation") therapies still exist in some states.

Assistant professor of sociology at Temple University

I recently traveled to Texas to talk about my new book The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. While there, I learned a bit more about skirmishes in that region over the past year—many of which continue—regarding conversion therapies for homosexuality.

Responding to recent bans for reorientation therapy for minors in some states, the current Texas Republican Party platform maintains, “We recognize the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling, which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.” Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern filed a bill preventing bans on reorientation, protecting the rights of counselors to offer conversion therapy in all circumstances in that state, though this bill has not yet passed. (This was one among many anti-gay bills she filed, some of which she has withdrawn, including a right for businesses to discriminate, and banning gay affirmative therapy for minors.)

Last year in Dallas, a billboard promoting a reparative therapy clinic was put up and taken down after protests. This clinic has recently opened the “Children’s Center for Healthy Gender & Sexuality” to explicitly conduct reparative therapy with minors. While there was an attempt to ban these practices for minors in Texas, and despite condemnation from all major professional mental health associations in the US, conversion therapies remain alive and well in these areas—though likely practiced by a small minority of mental health practitioners, given general opposition to these practices in these professions.

San Francisco Pride, 2013.
Image via Creative Commons.

The gay community has also responded to the threat of conversion therapy. I dropped into a gay bar in Austin on my trip where a large flag hung over a pool table. Rainbow letters on a black background shouted "BORN THIS WAY" in all caps. This flag has been popular at pride parades this past year, including at the one in my home town of Philadelphia, taking the Lady Gaga anthem and transforming the title into a full force political slogan.

This pattern of viewpoints is quite common in debates over homosexuality: anti-gay folks often believe homosexuality is a choice that can be unchosen, while supporters of gays believe in innate and immutable sexual orientations from birth. Considering these two views simultaneously, they clearly cannot be reconciled. Each is rooted in a version of “essentialism”—an idea about the underlying nature of human sexuality, including the idea that sexual desire exists independent of culture. These ideas exist in a kind of symbiosis—the more one group promotes one of these views, the more opponents assert the opposite. But we know from decades of research on sexuality around the world that culture plays a crucial role in what forms that sexualities can take—biology does not establish sexuality any more than it establishes food preferences.

While these essentialist viewpoints seem irreconcilable, it is important to note that both have the capacity to reinforce the idea that same-sex sexuality is something shameful. For reorientation proponents, homosexual desire is to be eradicated and is a symptom of excessive shame. For promoters of “born this way,” same-sex sexual desire must be tolerated because it cannot be helped, and this position does nothing to suggest that a gay and lesbian life might be a desirable outcome. Making pro-gay arguments from the position of biology alone misses the cultural work that needs to be done if same-sex sexual desire and behavior are to be fully acceptable. The missing but perhaps necessary argument is that there is nothing inherently shameful about consensual sex and relationships between members of any sex, including sex between men, and these relationships may actually enhance human lives. With this position, the questions of the cause of homosexuality and concerns over malleability become moot points. In efforts to create tolerance, gay rights has ceded the idea of sexual fluidity, fighting for the recognition of clearly delineated types of persons, which science seeks to reinforce. Yet, establishing general sexual freedom for all was much more a position of gay liberationists who participated in the Stonewall Rebellion.

Source for these axes of comparison: Dawne Moon, 2005.
"Discourse, Interaction, and Testimony: The Making of Selves
in the US Protestant Dispute over Homosexuality."
Theory & Society 551-577.

New research is beginning to show ways that the “born this way” message may even be inappropriate for advancing gay rights. Consider how new generations are changing views on these issues, a recent poll in the UK found that 50% of people age 18-24 reported some same-sex sexual attractions, and most think sexual orientation is on a continuum. These trends may be similar in the United States, as researchers continue to uncover evidence of expressed sexual fluidity for men and women. With taboos on homosexuality and gender fluidity lessening, the old category systems of gay/straight and male/female are no longer exhaustive. Even more problematic for the “born this way” position, new research by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, psychology professor Patrick Grzanka and his research team shows that a substantial group of anti-gay people believe that people are born gay.

So what to do about the continued presence of conversion therapies in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere? Recognizing the kinds of harm that these therapies can cause is certainly central, but so is the cultural message that there is nothing inherently wrong with same-sex sexual expression. Meanwhile, some scholars have argued that a better model for gay rights that sidesteps the issues of mutability and cause would be analogous to rights to freedom of religion. In that case, a state cannot force a person to change their religion in order to get rights because religion is crucially important to a person’s sense of self. Perhaps this kind of argument rooted in American ideals of freedom could be a better basis for arguing against therapies that treat same-sex attraction as something rooted in shame, and could be a more open-ended basis for protecting freedoms of a broader range of sexual and gender expressions.


Tom Waidzunas is author of The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. He is assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.

"Finally we have a book that takes a deep, inside look at sexual reorientation therapies and their far-reaching cultural effects. In a provocative turn, The Straight Line not only interrogates the fringe science of sexual reorientation, but it shows us how these efforts to reorient gays and lesbians have shaped—and been shaped by—more liberal ideas about sexuality."
—Jane Ward, author of
Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men

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