Why the question of Gay Conversion Therapy may not be as simple as it seems.
As the battle against gay conversion therapy rages on, I would like to share another, often hidden side to the argument. I will begin by stating my personal position in this discussion; I do not believe that homosexuality is a “condition” that needs “curing”, I am not comfortable with the practice of gay conversion therapy or the use of religion to defend its validity. However, I do not write this article as a secular person. I am Jewish and deeply connected to my tradition and culture. I am part of a community (Masorti) that values modernity alongside tradition and constantly strive to find ways for the two to exist alongside each other. As a liberal thinker who feels passionately about the rights of all groups to respect and freedom, gay conversion therapy is not something that sits comfortably with me. Similar to others, my instinct is to shout… “be comfortable with who you are”, “love who you want to love”, “to hell with any haters”!
The conversation around same sex relationships in my community has most often been along the lines of: How can we make everyone feel welcome? How can we honour this loving, committed relationship between two women/men in our community so that they feel cherished and appreciated? However, my brother who grew up as a gay man in the same community has commented that even in such a liberal religious space he felt different, out of place and uncomfortable in his own skin. He tells me that when he was young he would have done anything to just feel the same, to be like everyone else. If someone had offered him a "cure" he would have taken it in a hearbeat. Luckily, he found his way through it and comfortably brings his Hindu boyfriend to Jewish festival celebrations and family functions. So what if he had grown up in an ultra religious community? A community that believes the only valid relationships are between men and women?
As a therapist I feel that there is a group of people integral to this discussion that should be given some airtime if we are to be fair and considerate to all of the stakeholders in the conversation. The common assumption is that those who undergo conversion therapy are at best misguided and at worst coerced by controlling, dogmatic, religiously minded therapists. But what if this is not really the full picture? What if some truly believe that living a religious life is the path to fulfillment rather than following their sexual urges? How do we respond to this as therapists who are supposed to respect religious beliefs and a person’s right to live a life in line with those beliefs?
As an existential psychotherapist I am interested in people’s “worldview”, the way they approach and go out into the world. What do they value, what is important to them and through which lens do they relate to other, to themselves and to the world. It is common for people to come into therapy because they are experiencing a conflict between two values they hold dearly and an uneasy feeling of discontentment as a result. I was once in a therapy group with a gay man (28 years-old) who was an evangelical Christian, we spoke at length about his engagement in conversion therapy. Young and idealistic, I was initially appalled by his defense of conversion therapy, his conviction that his life could only be valid if lived in a relationship with a woman and his recounting of stories of his friends who had had positive experiences undergoing conversion therapy and were now “happy”, “content” and “fulfilled”.
However, as we talked something changed in me. Connecting with this man allowed me to come face to face with the human suffering that leads people to seek out conversion therapy. This mans Christian beliefs that he held so tightly meant that he valued traditional family, marriage between a man and a woman much more than he valued his feelings of sexual attraction towards men. There was no conflict of values for him, he knew what he valued, and the feelings that challenged these values simply needed to be addressed and changed. Is this so different to working with other values in the therapy room? Are we not always confronted with clients who say that they are not doing what they believe in and want to find a way to change their behavior so they feel more authentic? Do we not then help them to think about how they can work towards this?
My sense is that more often than not it is heterosexual people or gay people from accepting and loving backgrounds who find the practice of gay conversion therapy the most abhorrent. As a straight woman I cannot claim to know but I have a feeling that for many gay men and women who rally against it, the idea of gay conversion therapy taking place touches something in them. It may feel like a personal attack, like a comment on their value or their own right to be comfortable in their own skin. For other therapists (myself included), it may feel like it brings the psychotherapeutic profession into disrepute so we battle against it to show our own validity and sense of ethical practice.
Yet, what about people like my friend the evangelical Christian? Who are we to dictate how someone should live? Doesn’t that make us as bad as the conversion therapists? How can we hold our liberal viewpoints; value openness, freedom and fairness while feeling vehemently that people do not have the right to choose not to be gay? Lets have a discussion about this rather than shutting it down for fear of being seen as homophobic, politically incorrect or dubious therapists...
PS. I would still prefer conversion therapy to be totally banned. In particular because:
Many who choose to undergo it are not making an informed decision based on a wide range of arguments.
Therapists who carry out the therapy are motivated often by their own religious beliefs and do not always have their clients best interests at heart.
It is frequently being carried out on minors (under 18’s) who, when it doesn’t work often face a lifetime of secrecy and self-hatred.