when law, science, and religion meet sexuality
A gay-conversion practice is being taken to court for fraud, catching its lawyers and PR consultants off guard as their stock talking points fail to connect.
When you grow up in a religiously conservative household and discover that you’re gay, there’s often a lot of pressure for you to change your ways because many conservatives either cannot cope with the idea that homosexuality is not just a choice people make on a whim, or if they can manage to accept the science, refuse to see it as anything other than a defect to be cured. And as a result, numerous conservative communities have established infamous pray-away-the-gay camps and pseudoscientific “treatment centers” which promise that a few years of behavioral or cognitive or talk therapy will let patients overcome their gay urges. Both these practices have an abysmal rate of success, and while the former is often immune from lawsuits thanks to religious exemptions, the latter can be sued, which is what the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing on behalf of one such group’s former patients, alleging consumer fraud. Since you can’t cure a gay person, anyone claiming to be able to do so for a fee is in fact breaking the law. Knowing that it can’t win on the science, the group’s lawyers are going for the following red herring…
“I support the right of an adult to seek help from a licensed professional and to live their life as they choose and not as the SPLC says that they have to,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founding board chairwoman of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is defending JONAH. For certain gay people, “their identity in their religious faith is more important to them than their putative sexual identity, and that’s a choice that people are entitled to make.”
Which is all well and good, except that the SPLC is arguing, correctly in my view, that the group in question, JONAH, founded by Orthodox Jews in New York, isn’t so much helping gay men or women who come to it because they’re terrified of the next time an urge to have sex with same sex partners will hit, they are under pressure to do so from their communities. In a twisted way, what Gallagher is saying is correct, for certain gay people being a part of their community is so important that they’re willing to forsake their sexuality to stay in it. But she’s also admitting that staying in some communities can only happen through conformity, forcing people who might be happy being gay into an existential crisis in which they have to make tough choices they should not have to make. Then, these distressed souls come to JONAH or organizations like it where a councilor with dubious credentials spouts pseudoscientific claptrap at them, fails to make all but a handful of patients stop being gay, and puts the blame on them for the failure.
This is very much the typical alt med/faith healing model, claim to perform miracles, fail since all of biology is against the treatment, something well known to the experts, and then, when failure inevitably rears its ugly head, accuse the patient of not trying hard enough for the miracle he or she has been promised to happen. It’s fraud plain and simple, and we have laws against it. The patients’ consent or willingness to attend JONAH sessions is irrelevant as far as most consumer protection laws are concerned and, in another strike against Gallagher’s defense, the issue is if the councilors at JONAH were selling a false bill of goods, because if they did, the courts should find for the SPLC’s clients. Of course JONAH claims that gay conversion therapy actually works because they can find instances of people switching their sexuality and can summon someone who considers himself ex-gay to testify that hey, this gay-no-more therapy thing is legit…
Doyle, who considers himself a former homosexual, is now married with children. He was a sensitive child, he said, and he had trouble bonding with his father. He was later abused by an older female cousin, and “that caused me have a disdain toward women…”
“When I resolved those issues in my early 20s, my same-sex attractions really went away,” he said. “I realized that for some people, this wasn’t simply just something that they had to accept, they could actually work through these issues if they wanted to and go on to live a heterosexual life. I don’t have disdain for the LGBT community, I chose a different path.”
For those of you wondering about the science part of all this, here it comes. Doyle’s abuse is of course highly regrettable, but to argue that it turned him gay until he dealt with the trauma does not fit in with the scientific literature on this exact topic. Victims of sexual abuse can exhibit a lot of contradictory behaviors. Some become asexual, afraid of having any urges or any contact in any way, shape, or form to prevent future abuse. Others can become hypersexual, initiating as many of their future sexual encounters as possible, and constantly looking for new chances for sex with either a committed partner or a stranger, staying in charge of their sex lives. The main goal for these seemingly paradoxical responses to the same kind of trauma is staying in control. Post-abuse asexuality and hypersexuality are really just two ways to accomplish that. In Doyle’s case, he may well have seen women as predators and wanted to stay away from them sexually not to get abused again, also as a form of maintaining control of his sex life.
Problem is that Doyle apparently wasn’t attracted to other men throughout his life without some traumatic event, unlike the SPLC’s clients who just realized they were gay when they hit puberty and simply weren’t attracted to women. Therefore, his case is just not applicable here. Likewise, human sexuality is a very complicated thing which depends on environmental triggers, genetics, behavioral modeling, and a whole host of other factors. For some, sexual orientation is a pretty fluid thing and they could switch from homosexuality, to bisexuality, then to heterosexuality over the course of their lives. For others, orientation is extremely rigid. For others still, there is a brief experimentation phase. My bet is that people who claim to be successfully freed from same sex attraction either had a fluid sexuality, or were caught in their experimentation phase, diagnosed as gay, then credited their natural stabilization on the sexuality spectrum with age to the pray or talk-away-the-gay efforts to the delight of their religious communities. Why do I say that? There is zero evidence of people who never had heterosexual urges being successfully “cured.”
Herein lies the whole reason why we should not be judging people by their sexuality. People do not fit into binary right/wrong, straight/gay categories with which religious zealots are obsessed to the point of driving themselves into a tizzy over non-existent crises of morality. That’s just not how nature works. Roughly a third of all men and half of all women admit to having some forms of same sex attraction, and while women are more likely to act on them, more than 90% of both genders stay heterosexual. Telling someone not to act on urges they statistically wren’t going to anyway, or with whch they were only going to experiment once or twice isn’t “curing patients of unwanted homosexual urges,” but just letting nature take its course, and to make money off of this from people desperate to stop being who they are to win back their friends and family is not just fraudulent, it’s unethical and predatory. And what about people who at a loss to pin down a precise sexual orientation and gender preference, who will always exist along the middle of the sexual spectrum? Organizations like JONAH can only mislead and harm them.
And here’s a really great thing about this particular lawsuit. The court taking up the case will not be entertaining “expert” witnesses who plan to give scientifically debunked pseudoscience from many decades ago, and we’ll get a full accounting of the methods these organizations use and public explanations of why they do not, cannot, and will not work on the vast majority of patients sent to them to change something far outside of their control. The only humane thing to do with people who are confused or troubled by their sexual orientation is to listen to them, find what’s really troubling them about it, and help them come to terms with who they are, not what you, or their family, or their friends, or their religious figureheads want them to be. It won’t always be all sunshine and roses at the other end of the process, there might be some serious issues to deal with, but the point is that it’s no one’s place to “fix” you to a particular stereotype. Your decisions regarding your sexuality have to be your own and take who you really are into account.