An End to Conversion Therapy?

It may finally be over.  Nevada is the latest of eight states that officially ended the practice of sexual “conversion therapy” of minors.  Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bill making it illegal for a physician or other health professional to perform therapy intended to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of someone under 18 years of age.  However, in a telling compromise, the bill exempts religious organizations and allows counseling by members of the clergy.

Conversion therapy, also known as “reparative therapy,” refers to a host of pseudoscientific practices and faith-based counseling aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation, of “curing” a person, often a youth, of homosexuality.  Nevada joins Connecticut and New Mexico that ended the practice earlier this year and five other states — California (2012), Illinois (2015), New Jersey (2013), Oregon (2015) and Vermont (2016) – as well as the District of Columbia (2014) and other cities that banned the dubious practice.

At the height of the religious right’s campaign against homosexuals, more than 20 states introduced similar legislation sanctifying conversion therapy.  In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive action to make it harder to conduct gay conversion therapy.  While the state has not formally banned the practices, it bars insurance coverage for the practice and prohibits state-licensed mental health providers from offering it to minors.  Cities across the country have banned the practice, including in Florida (Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, West Palm Beach and Lake Worth), Ohio (Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo), Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh) and Washington (Seattle).  In 2016, Senators Patty Murray (WA) and Corey Booker (NJ) re-introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act to ban conversion therapy; an earlier version of the bill was introduced last year but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Unfortunately, while states and cities have banned the practice, Vice President Mike Pence long championed it.  As Governor of Indiana, four-term Congressman and earlier radio talk-show host, Pence supported a religious- or faith-based (white) moralist agenda.  He took a hardline stand against a woman’s right to an abortion, even signing a law banning abortions in cases where a fetus could have a potentially life-threatening condition.  He opposed condom use by teenagers, insisting, “The only way to stay safe from premature pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases is to practice abstinence and pray to God, that’s the only real way to stay safe.”  Pence even opposed the local Catholic archdiocese’s plan to settle Syrian refugees in Indianapolis.

Pence, as a candidate, proudly proclaimed, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”  He is a long-time proponent of a “Biblical view” of homosexuality.  As a Representative, he argued that the legislative branch “should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a ‘discrete and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.”  In 2000, he proposed a revision of the Ryan White CARE Act so that support would be redirected from organizations providing HIV/AIDS care to “those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

As governor, he supported a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and, in March 2015, signed a law allowing merchants and others to discriminate against gays and lesbians for religious reasons.  Pence also sought to cut state HIV/AIDS funding and increase spending for conversion-therapy programs that offered to “cure” gay youths and made them straight.

Most revealing, while a student at Indiana University, Pence apparently struggled with “identity issues.”  Later, he publicly admitted on Fox News, “It [gay conversion therapy] was instrumental in helping me overcoming certain urges.”  He went on to say, “With God’s help, and the work of many of his therapists, I was able to seek the straight path when I was a younger man.  If it wasn’t for that, I would have never been able to marry.”

Pence backed the Republican Party’s 2016 anti-LGBTQ platform that promoted conversion therapy.  The plank was developed by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and read, in part, “We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children.”  The platform also called for reversing marriage equality and opposed allowing transgender students access to the locker rooms, restrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.  The elections of Pres. Donald Trump and V.P. Pence relaunched the religious right’s culture wars.


The current culture wars were launched in 1972 by Phyllis Schafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, that successful blocked the adoption of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  She and other Christian conservatives were infuriated by ‘60s political and cultural radicalism, of calls for Black Power, mounting anti-Vietnam War protests, a nascent feminist movement and a counterculture celebrating sex, drugs and rock-&-roll.

The religious right was deeply distressed by two landmark 1973 decisions.  First, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v Wade that a woman has a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and, second, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified homosexuality, freeing it from the stigma of a mental disorder in the revised The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-3), the mental-health bible.

In 1977, Anita Bryant launched an anti-gay campaign in Dade County, FL, and succeeding in repealing a gay nondiscrimination, equal-employment ordinance.  Voters believed her claim: “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children, therefore, they must recruit our children.”  The following year, California State Senator, John Briggs, who had worked with Bryant in Miami, sponsored the “California Defend Our Children Initiative.”  It was intended to curtail educational speech in the classroom, bringing charges against teachers and others advocating, encouraging or engaging in homosexuality.  It prohibited the hiring and required the firing of homosexuals if the school board deemed them unfit.  It failed at the ballot box.

In ‘79, Jerry Falwell invited a select group of Christian conservative leaders to a strategic-planning retreat at his Lynchburg, VA, estate.  Falwell, who ran a private Christian academy and hosted a popular televangelist program, “The Old-Time Gospel Hour,” had supported Bryant’s anti-gay campaign and, in ’78, generated a controversy by encouraging churches to register voters and evangelicals to vote for conservative candidates.

Among those who attended the Lynchburg conclave were: Richard Viguerie, the direct mail fund-raising guru; Paul Weyrich, who helped found the Heritage Society, the Christian Voice and the Free Congress Foundation; Robert Billings, founder of the National Christian Action Coalition; Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus; and Ed McAteer, an influential Christian organizer. Historian Deanna Spingola warned: “their objective was to set up multiple New Right organizations to shape issues, raise money and acquire political power in an effort to restructure America’s domestic and foreign policies.”  Perhaps more apocryphal than actual, Falwell once recalled that at the 1979 gathering, Weyrich said to him: “Jerry, there is in America a moral majority that agrees about the basic issues. But they aren’t organized.”  Thus, was born the nation’s organized religious right.

Looking back, these religious warriors could legitimately claim that they were instrumental in mobilizing a moral majority that forged a political movement.  They played an important role in Reagan’s victories; their efforts led to George Bush’s elections in 2000 and 2004; and, even more threatening, they lubricated Trump’s 2016 victory.  Adopting a secretive Leninist-style program, these well-funded hardcore counter-revolutionaries have seized state power and are wield it with mean-spirited rage.


The tumultuous ‘60s affected nearly every aspect of American life.  Most pointedly, the social forces that found expression in the civil rights movement, antiwar activism, the counterculture and the emergent women’s movement ignited the fledgling gay-rights movement.  One of the era’s singular expressions of rebellion was the infamous 1969 Stonewall riot in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Gay activists understood that science — like sexuality – is a social category, one that changes over time.

In the wake of Stonewall, activists led by Frank Kamery intensified their campaign against the questionable medical assumptions – and political consequences — that underlay psychiatry’s analysis of homosexuality. Inspired by the civil rights movement’s challenge to racism, gay activists set their sights on redefining the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM).  The then-current DSM-II refered to homosexuality and other sexual deviances as mental disorders, “pathological deviation[s] of normal sexual development.”

Over the last century-and-a-half, once reputable “sciences” — as well as illicit sexual practices denounced as perversions — have been revised, leading to changes in social beliefs and values.  Phrenology was once considered a science and eugenics once promised a better human species.  Similarly, medical authorities once warned that masturbation was a derangement and oral sex a sin. Beliefs and practices that were once unquestionably accepted have been, with time and critical engagement, deposited in the dustbin of history.

The central figure in the long, drawn-out battle to change the DSM was Robert Spitzer, then on the faculty of New York State Psychiatry Institute and a member of the APA’s Committee of Nomenclature.  He did this through a series of what one historian calls “compromises,” tactical changes in the diagnosis of homosexuality.  His nomenclature compromises with regard to homosexuality reveal the shifting terrain of intellectual engagement: “sexual orientation disturbance” (1973), “ego-dystonic homosexuality” (1980) and “sexual disorders not otherwise classified” (1986).

The “APA’s 1973 decision deprived religious, political, governmental, military, media, and educational institutions of any medical or scientific rationalization for discrimination,” notes Jack Drescher, M.D., a psychiatrist and gay activist.  In reaction to this change, the religious right developed a new approach, one that did not, in principle, shun or expel gay people but, in Drescher’s words, “they are embraced if they will renounce their homosexuality and seek to ‘cure’ it.”

The purported “cure” was initially developed by Samuel Haddea University of Pennsylvania professor and psychiatrist, among others.  According to Time, Hadden claimed “patients shared and interpreted each other’s dreams, cast aside their ‘flamboyant’ clothes and manners, worked through their hostilities and neuroses, and began dating women.  Marriages were saved and made.”  Timereports that the conversion therapy campaign was “reborn through ‘ex-gay’ Christian ministries, including the umbrella group Exodus International, founded in Anaheim, Calif., in 1976.”  Therapy methods included pastoral counseling, Bible study, individual and group psychotherapy, and aversion treatments.  It concludes its review, acknowledging, “Exodus International shut down in 2013, with an apology from its leader for giving ‘false hope’ — though the wider network it spawned, Exodus Global Alliance, continues to operate.”

The term “reparative therapy” was coined by Elizabeth Moberly, a British research psychologist and theologian; she is the author of Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic (1983).  Drescher warns that “she combines psychoanalytic theories with her religious beliefs.”  She labeled homosexuality an illness caused by “some deficit in the relationship with the parent of the same sex.”  Moberly argued, “

Any incident that happens to place a particular strain on the relationship between the child and the parent of the same sex is potentially causative.”Among psychiatrists, two of the strongest proponents of the claim that homosexuality was a curable mental illness were Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides.

Bieber, who taught at the New York Medical College and author of Homosexuality: A Psychoanalytic Study of Male Homosexuals (1962), insisted that “homosexuality is not an adaptation of choice; it is brought about by fears that inhibit satisfactory heterosexual functioning. … I suggest that homosexuality be characterized as a type of sexual inadequacy since most homosexuals (especially those who are exclusively homosexual) cannot function heterosexually.”  He claimed a 27 percent conversion rate of homosexual patients into heterosexual ones through traditional psychoanalytic methods.

Socarides, who began practicing psychiatry and psychoanalysis in New York City in 1954, argued that “homosexuality represents a disorder of sexual development and does not fall within the range of normal sexual development. … [A] pathological parent-child relationship [is] in the background of all the homosexual studies.”  He claimed that over a decade of treating homosexual patients psychoanalytically, he had 35 percent conversion rate.

But what about the 73 percent of Bieber’s patients and Socarides’ 69 percent who did not convert?  Drescher notes, “Reparative therapists claim a patient’s lack of motivation is the primary obstacle to change.”

The APA, American Medical Association and other national health-professional organizations have formally declared that homosexuality is not a disease and conversion therapy on a minor can be harmful.  Nevertheless, religious and other conservatives continue to support conversion therapy, arguing, as did The Federalist, that the recent state and local bans “leave no mental health professional free to make her own decisions to help a child become more comfortable with his or her own body.”  Freedom to deny freedom to be one’s self; welcome to the new security state of internalize tyranny.


Since taking office, Pres. Donald Trump has aggressively relaunched the culture wars.  He appointed conservatives to key Cabinet positions; come out against a woman’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy; ended federal litigation over the notorious transgender “bathroom” bill; appointed a Christian conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court; and issued executives orders reinstating the global ban on the discussion of abortion by individuals and organizations receiving federal funding for overseas projects and overturning the Johnson Amendment (named after former Sen. – and later Pres. — Lyndon Johnson) that restricts religious leaders from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit by the loss of their tax-exempt status.

Trump – together with his Vice President, his Cabinet and a Republican-controlled Congress — have targeted a growing number of sex-related “threats” to the nation’s moral order.  They are seeking to a defund Planned Parenthood, restrict teen birth control and sex education, limit the rights of gay and transgender people, end Internet “neutrality” and censor online porn.  One can also anticipate increased efforts by localities to suppress adult “consensual” prostitution and restrict the commercial availability of pornography, sex toys and adult sex clubs.  One can only wonder if they will attempt to legislate the nation-wide adoption of conversion therapy.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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