A Cure for What Ails You

by Michael Abernethy

12 November 2008


One of these days you’re gonna love me
You’ll sit down by yourself and think
About the times you pushed and shoved me
And what good friends we might have been
And then you’re gonna sigh a little
And maybe even cry a little
But one of these days you’re gonna love me

— “One of These Days”, Tim McGraw

Like many, Tim McGraw’s song of personal redemption and forgiveness is open to interpretation. Some will hear the tale of a man examining his youthful deeds of cruelty—picking on the neighborhood nerd, abandoning his high school sweetheart—and deduce that the song is a plea for compassion and empathy. Others, however, will point to the spiritual awakening the singer experiences while in church, as evidenced that the song is about the power of religion in washing our past sins away.

A parallel split of opinions is occurring in psychiatric claims involving the LGBT community. To many, modern psychology and social work is responsible for the tool that will herald in a new era of understanding of diversity issues: sensitivity training. Like the protagonist of McGraw’s song, one can find redemption and new awareness through reflection upon one’s past transgressions.

However, others advocate psychology and religion as the means to overcome temptation: reparative therapy. Here, the thought is that an epiphany, often the result of embracing religion, results in a change of behavior; one can quit the lifestyle he or she has adopted.  Both approaches claim success, and certainly, there are converts ready to step forward to testify how they have been changed by these methods.

There are also those ready to step forward and claim the two methods are shams. The truth lies in one of the basic tenants of PSYCH 101: that a patient can only be helped when he or she wants to be helped. Those actively resistant to treatment won’t benefit. Unfortunately, there are many involved in these therapies who have no desire to be there, finding themselves attending due to company policy, parental mandate, or judicial order. 

Recently, I was required to attend sensitivity training about the GLBT community in order to participate in my university’s Safe Zone Program. (The Safe Zone Program is a growing outreach program on college campuses, in which faculty and staff identify their offices as “safe zones” where students can discuss sexual orientation matters without judgment.) I don’t mind attending the training, and it was an excellent presentation, but really…I’m a gay man who writes a column on gay culture and issues. I’ve spoken at several conferences on diversity. I’ve been with my partner for 14 years. And my partner and I have experienced discrimination, both societal and institutional. How much more sensitive do these people think I can be?   

In fact, most of the people in attendance were pretty sensitive. Some were gay or lesbian, but most had friends or relatives who are gay. Still others were just sympathetic to the problems GLBT students face. One colleague and friend, a mother of two straight sons, cried while she listened to gay and lesbian students describe their experiences on campus.  “It just hurts me,” she told me, “to think that someone would treat my boys that way.” Like I said, sensitive.

While those attending the training undoubtedly learned about the prejudice LGBT individuals face, it’s doubtful anyone had a life-altering experience, choosing to throw away a history of bigotry for a life of inclusion and acceptance. Yet, there are those who are sent to sensitivity training for just that purpose. A recent episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! featured former pro ball player John Rocker, who was ordered to attend sensitivity training after complaining in the press about riding the subway with “queens with AIDS”, among other undesirables. Rocker left midway through the first of what were to be many sessions and never went back.

Rocker exemplifies those who attend training under duress. These individuals often have the prospect of unemployment or a prison term waiting should they fail to attend.  Resentment about being forced to attend and a resistance towards the message of the presentation makes it highly unlikely that significant changes in attitude will occur. It’s like attending traffic school to get out of paying the ticket…how many of us significantly change our driving behavior because we saw the scary drivers ed movie? We may in the short term, but soon old patterns emerge until such time that we are ready to make a lifelong commitment to change.

Where sensitivity training fails most significantly is in teaching realistic methods for dealing with a bigoted environment. Even if the gay-basher or Klan member should have an epiphany, he or she will still have to return to a household, social circle, and possibly even neighborhood filled with those who share his or her old attitudes. Peer pressure and psychological reinforcement of prejudicial stereotypes by peers will most likely result in a return to the previous known behaviors, only there may be a twinge of guilt when beating the crap out of a queer in an alley.

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