By Wayne Besen
Originally published on Advocate.com March 20 2013 4:14 AM ET
This has been a particularly bad couple of weeks for the “ex-gay” industry.
First, it was reported that the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality’s tax-exempt status was revoked last September. This group is a notorious antigay propaganda mill that portrays LGBT people as mentally ill and tries to “cure” them of their homosexuality.
The IRS revocation was the result of NARTH not filing Form 990 for three consecutive years. This could have been due to administrative incompetence. Or the group’s revenues may have decreased sharply, and officials chose to not file to avoid public scrutiny of their financial failures. In NARTH’s last 990 filing, in 2008, the group reported a loss of $29,692 on total revenue of $137,143.
In any case, this is a victory because NARTH will no longer be collecting tax-deductible donations. It strips the group of its already shredded credibility and eliminates its thin veneer of professionalism. Not surprisingly, on its website the antigay organization continues to portray donations as “tax-deducible,” deliberately misleading the public and even its own contributors.
Second, the “ex-gay” industry took a hit in New Jersey this week, when the state Senate’s Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee voted 7-1 with two abstentions, to advance a bill that would prohibit licensed therapists from trying to “cure” gay minors. The Garden State bill was similar to California’s SB1172, which was signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown but is currently being contested in court.
Clearly, NARTH is on the ropes and in deep trouble For years, the organization published books and worked closely with religious organizations, such as Exodus International and Focus on the Family, to promote the message that gay people did not exist and were simply “heterosexuals with a homosexual problem.”
Another function of the organization was to promote junk science and distort valid biological and psychological research on homosexuality. This has caused leading researchers, such as University of Utah’s Lisa Diamond and UCLA’s Allan Schore, to accuse NARTH of twisting and politicizing their research.
NARTH’s deterioration began in 2006 after Gerald Schoenwolf, a member of its Scientific Advisory Committee, wrote a polemic on the group’s website that seemed to excuse slavery:
“With all due respect, there is another way, or other ways, to look at the race issue in America,” wrote Schoenwolf. “It could be pointed out, for example, that Africa at the time of slavery was still primarily a jungle, as yet uncivilized or industrialized. Life there was savage, as savage as the jungle … those brought to Europe, South America, America, and other countries, were in many ways better off than they had been in Africa.”
In 2010, NARTH became a laughingstock when its most prominent Scientific Advisory Committee member, George Rekers, was caught vacationing with a male escort he met on RentBoy.com. That same year, it was revealed that another NARTH board member, Arthur Abba Goldberg, had once served time in prison for bilking poor communities with complicated bond schemes.
It is not the tawdry scandals, however, but the actual substance of NARTH’s work that is responsible for the organization losing support. The group is a fount of bizarre theories and outlandish practices that can even make social conservatives cringe. For example, Scientific Advisory Committee member Gerard van den Aardweg believes that self-pity causes homosexuality. In his book Hope and Homosexuality, he claims the cure for being gay is “humor therapy,” in which clients are told to mock their inner child:
“He then imagines his ‘little child’ as standing before him in the flesh, or visualizes himself in his imagination as the ‘child’ he was in his past. He starts talking to this ‘child,’ like someone who exaggeratedly pities another. He tells the ‘child’ how enormously pitiful he is; accumulating a series of fantasized reasons for his complaining, he paints before this ‘child’s’ eyes a super-drama (hyper-drama) surrounding the complaint.”
Equally comical is a workbook sold on NARTH’s website, Practical Exercises for Men in Recovery of Same Sex Attraction (SSA). The author, James E. Phelan, offers a comprehensive list of 236 activities clients can participate in whenever they feel homosexual urges. This list includes bowling, singing to myself, watching the sky, reading maps, caring for houseplants, going to a revival or crusade, seeing famous people, crying, seeing or smelling a flower or plant, going to a drive-through (Dairy Queen, McDonalds, etc.), walking barefoot, bird-watching, smiling at people, playing Frisbee, and going to auctions.
Additionally, Phelan has clients practice “safe driving” and warns, “Keep your eyes on the road, not on other people’s cars. Focus on driving, not having sex with other drivers.” Phelan also urges readers to create a “masturbation action plan” and to tell their wives, “Let me be the man of the house,” and concludes that “dominant women only demasculinize men,” so “a man has got to be the lion of the den.”
What people need to understand is that these programs are fringe and rejected by every mainstream medical and mental health organization in the nation, such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association.
Indeed, reparative therapy is arguably not even therapy at all. It appears to be an organized campaign by antigay activists to hijack medical language to stigmatize a group of people so they will not achieve equal rights. The result is enormous psychological harm to clients and a negative impact on family relationships, because parents are falsely blamed for causing their children to be gay.
For these reasons, laws should be passed in every state to prohibit charlatans from abusing LGBT minors in the guise of “therapy.”
NARTH counters that this will inhibit “client determination.” However, deceptive advertising that makes false promises is what lures desperate and vulnerable parents to force their children into therapy. Moreover, if clients truly determined their course of medical treatment, they would be writing their own prescriptions, and I don’t see anyone advocating this.
NARTH argues that if such therapy is banned for minors, it violates therapists’ First Amendment rights. It seems NARTH practitioners have confused their role as physicians — who are held accountable for what they advise — with the bombast of talk radio hosts who can say whatever they want. Indeed, there are limits to medical speech; for example, a doctor may be held liable if he tells a patient recovering from a heart attack to improve his health by subsisting on a diet of funnel cakes and fried butter.
A final unconvincing argument is that such laws are an attack on parental rights. We heard this argument in the New Jersey hearing:
“I don’t understand who you people are, trying to come into our homes and tell us what to do with our children,” Carol Gallentine told the legislators. “I see you people bullying the parents.”
In reality, the government has long tradition in intervening to stop the neglect or abuse of children. For instance, a parent cannot use religious beliefs to deny a child critical medical treatment. A father can’t force a daughter to undergo female circumcision or cite a Bible verse about “sparing the rod” to justify beating his son.
Reparative therapy is always dangerous and ineffective because it begins with a deliberate misdiagnosis that claims that gay clients are mentally ill. When a therapist begins treatment with such a faulty premise, malpractice is almost always the result. This is why I strongly believe that psychologists who are NARTH members or practice reparative therapy should be stripped of their medical licenses.
There are a few well-meaning but misguided therapists who think that what I suggest is going too far because it will create a slippery slope. What they are essentially arguing, however, is that we must allow the practice of an illegitimate form of therapy to prevent potential overregulation of legitimate therapy. But in doing so, they are willfully sacrificing the mental health of clients who are being ripped off and ruined. They seem to forget that the first rule of medicine is to do no harm. And, of course, harm is the very essence of reparative therapy.
WAYNE BESEN is the founder of Truth Wins Out, a movement to fight antigay propaganda and the "ex-gay" industry.