• Treating Homosexuality as a Disease to be Cured

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    Treating Homosexuality as a Disease to be Cured by Timothy Harvey

    Prior to the 1970s, homosexuality was seen in pathological terms as a mental illness. Since homosexuality was seen as an illness, people began searching for cures. Like with all cures, some were viewed to be more valid than others and some seemed to resemble snake oil. However, in 1975, the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Other health organizations followed suit and homosexuality was eventually declassified by the World Health Organization in 1990. These declassifications meant that the disease never truly existed and that all treatments were fraudulent. Some health organizations even claimed that these supposed cures were actually harming the individuals instead of helping them. However, some people still believed that homosexuality was a disease and that it not only could be cured but must be cured for the betterment of society.

    Today, most scientifically educated people believe that homosexuality cannot be cured. The remaining radicals are typically members of fundamentalist religious groups. There are a few secular groups that claim to be able to cure homosexuality but they are usually partnered with some kind of religious institution. The most famous and scientific-appearing organization is called the National Association of Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). NARTH disagrees with the global scientific consensus that homosexuality is not a disorder. In a paper by founder Dr. Benjamin Kaufman, he explains that NARTH was established in 1992 to “stimulate discussion” since the American Psychological Association refused to study homosexuality as a disease. This organization claims that homosexuality is not a biological feature and can be changed.

    There have been various treatments to treat homosexuality. Psychoanalysis, which in itself is a pseudoscience, has been used to treat homosexuality since its creation. In this view, origin of this disease was seen as an unhealthy relationship with the patient’s parents during childhood. The talk therapies to treat homosexuality are not standardized and have yielded no significant results. The other more common treatment for homosexuality involves the behaviorist method of conditioning. These behavior modification treatments typically involve an aversive condition paired with a homo-erotic stimulus. The aversive condition is often electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs. These aversive conditions are removed when a hetero-erotic stimulus is present. Some therapists claimed to have incredible success with this therapy but further analysis suggests that these “Individuals undergoing such treatments do not emerge heterosexually inclined; rather they become shamed, conflicted, and fearful about their homosexual feelings.” The problem with this treatment is that it treats homosexuality as a learned behavior. If this was true, then simple conditioning would prove effective but it is not.

    Religious groups such as the recently shutdown Exodus International claimed that through a mixture of behavioral modification, psychoanalysis, pray and a step-program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous they could curve their homosexual desires. Borrowing steps from another NARTH founder, Joseph Nicolosi, these steps as the following: “(1) participate in sports activities, (2) avoid activities considered of interest to homosexuals, such [as] art museums, opera, symphonies, (3) avoid women unless it is for romantic contact, (4) increase time spent with heterosexual men in order to learn to mimic heterosexual male ways of walking, talking, and interacting with other heterosexual men, (5) Attend church and join a men’s church group, (6) attend reparative therapy group to discuss progress, or slips back into homosexuality, (7) become more assertive with women through flirting and dating, (8) begin heterosexual dating, (9) engage in heterosexual intercourse, (10) enter into heterosexual marriage, and (11) father children.” Many of these programs concede that there may not be a cure for homosexuality but that they can choose not to engage in homosexuality through the help of their support group and God. These groups see homosexuality as an addiction similar to narcotics and that they must fight against temptation for the sake of their family and their soul. There are many ex-gays who leave the programs and relapse into homosexuality. However some are able to control their homosexual behaviors and go on to develop heterosexual relationships.

    Many of these groups claim high success rates but they rarely perform actual studies to see if this is true. The few studies that have been performed are flawed or show that homosexual behavior can be controlled but homosexual desires and feelings cannot. One of the most famously flawed studies was performed by Robert Spitzer. The findings of his testimonial study suggested that reparative therapies were effective. Reparative therapy groups began using this study as scientific proof that reparative therapy was effective. However after several researchers critiqued his study, they all found it to be flawed. Mainly, the participants in his study were suffering from placebo effects and were asked questions about whether the believed that reparative therapy was working. Robert Spitzer himself even reassessed his study and found he critiques of his work to be valid.

    For the past decade, there have been numerous studies examining the dangers of conversion or reparative therapy and have led many organizations to speak out. Some of the side effects of reparative therapy include low self-esteem and self-regard, depression, drug abuse, promiscuous sexual behavior, isolation from family and friends, and suicidal thoughts and actions. These findings have led to the shutdown of some reparative clinics like Exodus International and have led to legislation banning reparative therapy for minors in California and New Jersey. After the shutdown of Exodus International, the former leader of the organization, Alan Chambers, offered an apology to those individuals hurt by his program. He acknowledged that his organization had done more harm than good for their patients and that he was sorry.

    Although some conversion clinics have closed in the United States, there are clinics worldwide that still offer conversion therapy. Along with these clinics there are also camps and retreats designed to convert sexually questioning minors to heterosexuality. Some have these camps have been shown to be quite damaging and even deadly. Many of these institutions lack psychological training and are usually run by members of a religious organizations offering conversion therapy style counseling for homosexuals.

    Organizations like NARTH believe that if a client wishes to change their sexuality, the counselor must help them. They believe it is an issue of respecting their patients’ wishes. However, the urge for the patient to change their sexuality usually comes about as a method of avoiding discrimination and the negative connotations of homosexuality. When it comes to minors, the counselor must keep in mind that the parents of the child may want the conversion therapy more than the child. Homosexuals do not need conversion therapy but rather it is the entire planet that desperately needs to learn tolerance and respect for one another. Since conversion therapy is easier, it is unlikely that this treatment will go away anytime soon.

    Category: HealthMental HealthPoliticsPsychologyReligionTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Evelyn Stratmoen

      The mere fact that these organizations are not endorsed by any type of medical/psychiatric/psychological society would be a huge red flag. But, we are all susceptible to confirmation bias, thereby keeping these types of “therapies” alive.

    • intuitiveacuity

      Any organization with strong ties to religious movements who claim to be scientific ought to be regarded with a tremendous amount of skepticism. If one believes a Biblical understanding of the world is the only real understanding, science serves as a slave to the desired outcome.

    • Ryan Danger McCall

      It is a shame that the people in society will completely ignore scientific research. It is not homosexual people who need therapy and need to change. It is the people in society who discriminate and judge others just because they are different who need change. The consequences of these therapies can be mentally exhausting for someone undergoing the “conversions”.

    • RankingEffects

      These clinics feed on people’s fears of being rejected by their own community. It’s ironic that the “urge for the patient to change their sexuality” is related to avoiding discrimination, yet the types of individuals who fund or work for these clinics are the same individuals that help perpetuate the discrimination against homosexuality.

    • CathlinaSmith

      When my cousin came out, my grandmother tried to “pray the gay away.” It was really sad seeing him treated as if he had some sort of disease. I hope that in the future, we will treat all humans the same instead of trying to cure people simply because they are different than us.

    • Thomas Taylor

      confuses me how asking someone about their sex life can be considered
      harassment but badgering them about their sexuality is somehow justified. I don’t
      think that it is anyone business what other people do in bed so long as it is consensual.
      Much of the arguments regarding sexuality seem to follow the same logic as they
      used in the segregation and the women’s rights arguments (it even says upfront
      that women should only be used for sexual gratification.)

    • narges30

      Homosexuality is not a disease to be cure. Most of them is about hormones action and reactions from prenatal to present of life. As we know both gender have androgen (male hormones) and estrogen (female hormones) sexual differentiation depends mostly on the level of testosterone during a sensitive period. the absence of sex hormones generally lead to female-looking external genitalia. Early in life, sex hormones bind to receptors in specific areas of the hypothalamus, amygdala, and other brain ares and produce anatomical and philological differences.

    • Bethany Barnett

      I didn’t know Exodus International got shut down. It says a lot about conversion therapy that such a big program as that can get shut down and an apology can be aroused from the leader. Conversion therapy does not work and does much more harm than good.

    • pdavis13

      I grew up with a brother who is homosexual and have many homosexual friends as well. One of my closest friends in high school had to hide his true identity from his parents, and everyone else, out of fear of what his parents might do to him. Once the truth did come out they locked him in a closet for hours upon end (we’re talking nearly 8 hours a day) so that he could “pray the gay away”. They also looked into “treatment programs”, mainly religious sects, that could provide him with some “guidance”. I had a hard time understanding why his parents reacted the way they did seeing as how my parents were totally fine and accepting of my brother, but not everyone can be as accepting.

    • StephanieMenotti

      Have you seen the documentary called Religulous with Bill Maher? I believe they interviewed a guy from Exodus, and they also interviewed several fundamentalist christians that believed homosexuality could (and should) be cured. This belief is just one of the many tragic ways that people can utilize differences against one another. I agree with Thomas about the way the argument against homosexuality has shaped up, but then, this is the argument about everything right? There is a group and they’re different, so instead of embracing the change and facing a fear of the unknown, we should all rally behind this ancient belief and balk at science when it tells us we are wrong. One day, this too shall pass, and then there will be a different minority group being badgered about similar situations in a very similar manner.

    • shanshan1314

      I born in a Catholic home, almost all of my family members are so strict about all kinds of rules like the ten commandments, like we need to pray before eating, we need to praise God before sleeping and after waking up. I ever argued with them about the homosexual relations, and my aunt who is a really pious religious person told me that homosexuality could be “cured”, actually she really use the word “cured”, that shock me so much. She is a college graduate person, and she still cannot accept homosexuality. One of my cousin is a lesbian, only a few people knew that she is a lesbian because she is so afraid to told others. To love a man or a woman is their choise, how could this be a sin and need to be “cured”? I think sometimes, people really believe religion in a wrong way, those rules are from people, but not from God, people just use God’s name to made things up. Sometimes religion make people so blind.

    • IvyBrown

      This has a very “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” feel to it. This looks interesting, let’s see how this treatment will work out. Wait, we caused avoidable harm to people? Oh, we’re sorry.
      I can’t believe there is still support for this. There is evidence animals in the wild can be homosexual, which should give some kind of a clue that it’s not a learned behavior that can be simply be unlearned.

    • JazzySmall

      It says a lot about people who think that a person chooses to be homosexual. There are so many repercussions that come with the mere mention of being something different from the norm. People lose their families, jobs, self-dignity and so much more by just trying to be themselves. TO try to change someone because of your own beliefs is downright crazy, in my opinion. I would never want someone to tell me that I could no longer be with the person I love and am attracted to because they feel some type of way about it. If people have the right to be happy and it is no way hurting the way you live or those around you why would you try to intervene?

    • Adam Braly

      I agree with Ivy that this feels very very sketchy. I’m from a religious-right upbringing and many of my family members would argue until they are blue in the face that homosexuality is a choice. This shit blows my mind. The level of arrogance and intolerance that this kind of attitude purports is off the charts. The simple fact that we might cause people avoidable harm in supporting this ideology very upsetting.

    • dandymandyl

      I would be very interested in seeing the number of minors that dropped out of conversion therapy and the number of minors who changed their sexuality and later changed back in adulthood.I could imagine that there would be a large number that went along with the therapy to appease their parents.

    • tinafriar

      I am still amazed (although why I am not sure with as many years as I have lived in such a religiously conservative state!) at how anyone in their right mind could honestly believe someone would choose to be homosexual. As hard as it can be to live in our society and with all the discrimination a homosexual person has to face – why the hell would someone choose such a difficult path? What really gets me though is how damaging this “conversion therapy” is to young adults. It’s sad and heartbreaking.

    • EndlessRepetition

      It seems obvious that the current methods of conversion therapy are desperate attempts at best and quackery at worst. Still, the hatred and stigma against homosexuals is quite real and I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect humanity to shift its instincts on the matter. Some weathy, well educated western nations may estabish temporary gains but I believe these will promptly disappear with the next serious crisis. Ultimately, we may be better off devoting real and responsible scientific research to identifying the cause of homosexual orientation with the goal of preventing the condition in the first place.

      • Why would we want to “prevent the condition”? To me, that’s equivalent to saying “Since blacks are highly discriminated against, we need to make try and it possible for black babies to have white skin, so they won’t be discriminated against.”

        I would argue that, instead, we need to keep moving forward with the social progress towards acceptance that we have gained in the past 40 years.

        • EndlessRepetition

          I daresay that the social progress that we both appreciate is unsustainable – the product of a fragmented society too wealthy, well-policed, and distracted to tolerate open conflicts. That will not always be the case. As we are forced to tighten the belts of our public expenditure we will see periods of limited policing, more overt discrimination, and fewer people willing to stick their necks out for “pet causes”.

          For example, I call your attention to the rise in black unemployment during the last recession, which was triple the rate of white counterparts across the spectrum of industries. That discrimination, by the way, was not a product of mere skin color but of a fundamental perception of difference between communities.

          Furthermore your analogy regarding the black community is in error. Blacks, for their own part, do not argue within themselves to eliminate their blackness. A black family does not regard its black children as the “other”. They are unified in that experience and identity, often proudly so. This is very different from gays who are almost always born to straight parents and into straight families. A gay child is very often the “other” – misunderstood, outside, tolerated but rarely ever preferred or fully embraced. I don’t know any gays who were thrilled about their status on discovery. I know many families who openly wished that their gay member’s sexuality was “just a phase”.

          For these reasons I say we should research an effective and responsible preventative and treatment. At the end of the day, parents don’t want gay kids, families don’t want gay siblings, society doesn’t want gay citizens, and gays don’t want to be different. It’s an unpreferred condition demonstrating no inherent merit, high personal cost, and significant social sanction.

    • Paul Keestra

      It’s no coincidence that the people who believe “you choose to be gay” also tend to believe in a literal recent creation, be skeptics of climate change and so on. They have an entrenched world view and avoid any education or information that threatens it. They create their own echo chambers to reinforce those views and see as hostile outsiders anyone who doesn’t share them. Just look at Conservapedia to see what I mean. You can’t change many of them, sadly, because reality doesn’t get a look in.

      • Marshall

        That is a two way street. As you have demonstrated by implying those who don’t accept your world view do not live in reality. And the disrespect echoes back and forth and the only thing you and others like you accomplish is to build resentment and contempt between your fellow man.

    • Mick

      It is a disease not south of the mind ( however there is no need for the dampness and the way a lot of them talk!) it is like anything biological, we are all controlled by chemicals in our body, in basic terms we are a bag of chemicals a imbalance in these especially ones such as hormones oestrogen, testosterone, progesterone, etc etc. can alter perception on the world, eg someone taking steroids can suffer extreme rage, women at that time of the month will become more emotional (varying from woman to woman) that is all homosexuality is it’s our chemistry gone wrong. We are all affected by pheromones a heterosexual man can pick up on pheromones from a woman and this will stimulate parts of the brain and release chemicals related to sexual desire. It happens across lots of species and well is our drive to reproduce! If this is changed for example the pheromones that are given off by a man have a similar response then well the same thing happens.

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    • Marshall

      The problem is that people have been treating homosexuality as a disease when in fact it is a symptom that be brought on by various other kinds of illnesses. There are multiple reasons people can be gay. One is that their brain chemistry or hormones are out of balance. Sometime your hormones can be out of balance for so long that permanent or long term physical and psychological damage is done(like with drugs). Others express homosexuality to cope or as a result of a trauma or other psychosis such as a need for attention or from being molested as a child. Some are genetically predisposed to the condition. Others maybe trying to fit into gender roles that society imposes on them. Point is that homosexuality is by its very nature deviant behavior and we should be helping people who are willing and able to change that behavior.