A Cure for What Ails You

[12 November 2008]

By Michael Abernethy

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.

This is not to imply that no one has had a change of heart and made it stick. Certainly, there are, and kudos to them. Still, Bullshit! maintains this amounts to brainwashing on the part of sensitivity trainers, mental programming which forces compliance to the ideal that all those of a certain demographic group should be embraced. Of course, this is a rather blanket accusation. The strategies employed among trainers vary widely.

The recent session I attended concentrated on education, relying on statistics and testimony, with frequent instruction that no one should feel compelled to do anything he or she was uncomfortable with. However, other programs I’ve attended have been too solemn, silly, condescending, or fervent, or some combination thereof. It would be easy to interpret some of the tedious activities I’ve seen as a method of brainwashing - indoctrination through mindless boredom. Still, it’s hard to imagine such programs having much effect on anyone.

Nonetheless, in his article “Misconceptions about Sensitivity Training”, Martin Larkin acknowledges that “it is certainly possible to slide from intellectual and emotional examination of issues (i.e., relationships and behaviors) to advocacy.” It takes skilled facilitators to achieve the goal of such training, “to explore and ultimately to understand our genuine differences while appreciating our common humanness.” (Academic Questions, Spring 1997) Ultimately, well-planned programs are a key to soothing tensions that can exist on campuses, and beyond.

Brainwashing is a charge frequently levied against another form of training: reparative therapy, which claims it can wash that gay right out of your life. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) is the leading organization dedicated to the cause. Despite its name, though, the organization and its proponents don’t want to change the whole world to be straight; instead, they have a specific target that they aim to help.

The big kahuna of reparative therapy is Joseph Nicolosi, who published Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality: A New Clinical Approach in 1991. In his book, Nicolosi examines the plight of what he refers to as the “non-gay homosexual”, who is

…a man who experiences a split between his value system and his sexual orientation. He is fundamentally identified with the heterosexual pattern of life. The non-gay homosexual feels his personal progress to be deeply encumbered by his same-sex attractions.

These men have no desire to live a homosexual lifestyle, yet they struggle with desires for same-sex sex, making them “non-gay homosexuals”. Through extensive therapy, and examining the traumatic events of their childhood (sexual molestation, father obsessions, same-sex experimenting), these men can overcome their homosexual carnal lust and lead healthy, productive heterosexual lives. Those men who are content with a gay lifestyle should be free to pursue it.

NARTH is all about providing options, as their mission statement proclaims: “We respect the right of all individuals to choose their own destiny.” It all sounds magnanimous, until one begins looking further into the attitudes behind the movement.

Viewers of LOGO’s comedy series Sordid Lives know of reparative therapy through the amusing story arch of efforts to “de-homosexualize” the character of Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan), an aging gay man picked by the spirit of Tammy Wynette to carry on her legacy. Brother Boy’s therapist, Dr. Eve (Rosemary Alexander), is malicious, a shrew of a woman with a genuine disgust of any sign of homosexuality.

In reality, reparative therapists are more compassionate, but their attitude regarding homosexual behavior is reflected well in the attitude of Dr. Eve. Through examining the NARTH webpages, it becomes evident that there is only one “correct” choice, heterosexuality, despite a proclaimed respect for those who choose a gay lifestyle. Homosexuality, the organization claims, leads to a host of social and psychological problems, among them:

  • “intense suffering”

  • distortion of “the natural bond of friendship” among same sex persons

  • a poor relationship with one’s father

  • “masculine deficit”

  • “maladaptive behavior”

  • “documented higher level of psychiatric complaints”

  • Further, reparative therapists often cite the high level of suicides and suicide attempts among gay individuals as evidence of how damaging the homosexual lifestyle can be.

    What this reading of the evidence fails to recognize is the social influence creating the very conditions NARTH cites as symptoms and problems. It is the rebuff by society, the repeated message of abnormality, and the rejection from parents and loved ones that often causes the problems mentioned. Take, for instance, the case of 16-year-old Steven, a gay youth who attempted suicide. His suicide note doesn’t indicate a hatred for himself, but for those who made his life a living hell:

    So I am gay. Why does everyone hate me because of that. Fuck them. I have been punched and spit on and called faggot, queer, loser, pussy, fag boy. Some asshole painted faggot on my locker. Some people do not talk to me… I am scared. and I am tired and I cant take any more. Yesterday in the locker room some assholes said steven is such a pussy and faggot. He is an ugly stupid faggot and we should kill him. And they knew that I could hear them. I dont know what to fucking think now. Is it better that they kill me or I kill myself.

    Steven, whose suicide note is posted on Suicide.org, survived his suicide attempt. Unfortunately, Steven is not the only youth to experience such feelings of despair, as most legitimate research into suicide among gay teens confirms harassment and rejection as two of the leading factors. A study in Australia reported that suicide was viewed by both gay and straight participants as a viable and acceptable option open to gay teens. (M. Molloy, S. McLaren, and A.J. McLachlan, “Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Who Cares?”, Australian Journal of Psychology, Aug 2003)
    With social attitudes such as these, it is no wonder that many struggling with questions of sexual identity would exhibit “maladaptive” behavior. While reparative therapy has successfully “reformed” individuals to embrace a heterosexual lifestyle, The Journal of Sex Research questions how well prepared the patients are for a lifetime of a wife and kids, noting that Nicolosi’s “view of heterosexual partnerships is just as stereotypically rosy as his view of homosexuals is dark”.  (James D. Weinrich, “Therapy Terminable and Interminable: “Non-gay Homosexuals” Come Out of the Closet”, August 1993) 

    Undeniably, those who are struggling with their sexual identity should seek therapeutic help of some kind; if they decide that reparative therapy is the proper course of action, then that is the course that should be pursued. The danger comes when those who don’t want to change are subjected to the therapy (often times, teens forced to participate by parents who don’t want a gay child). The psychological damage of hearing the repeated message that there is something wrong with how they are could be the catalyst that drives these confused souls into a darker place still, possibly to the brink of suicide. While NARTH accepts no patients who are not willing participants, many “deprogrammers” who follow NARTH’s lead do not share that ethical standard.

    Whether one participates in reparative therapy or sensitivity training should be a personal choice. Choosing to not be an active participant results in failure, although the result of such failure with sensitivity training is usually no more serious than a wasted afternoon. Equally important for achieving “success”, however one defines it, is the qualifications and techniques of those leading training or therapy sessions. 

    Abandoning hateful attitudes or destructive self-loathing—both are life-altering decisions. Perhaps the key comes in a third interpretation of McGraw’s song. By looking at our own behavior and examining the type of men and women we want to be, we can be true to the life that best suits us. It may involve life-altering changes as well, but they are changes that come from ourselves, not anyone else’s ideal of who we should be.

    Tim McGraw - “One of These Days”

    Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/64530-a-cure-for-what-ails-you/