#longreads There is something sick in the body politic when political parties strive to prevent individuals seeking their own wellbeing. It is deeply troubling when a free citizen seeks professional help for a condition he finds distressing and is blocked by another citizen – in this case, a rigidly ideological politician – from receiving such help.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said this on February 3: “‘Conversion therapy’ [the claim to be able to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity] destroys lives. And soon, it will be against the law in Victoria. Because bigoted quackery has no place in this state.”
So much ignorance is packed into that statement, such contempt for suffering and for the evidence of clinical science going back decades, that it cannot go unanswered.
Daniel Andrews knows nothing of the people I know who are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction, usually because it conflicts with their Christian faith. He knows nothing of the clinical psychologists who labour mightily to help such individuals, with overwhelmingly beneficial outcomes. He knows nothing of the research spanning almost a century which shows consistent success in helping many such individuals. Daniel Andrews only knows that the Zeitgeist is in the mood for stomping on Christians, including gay Christians.
These gentle people are perhaps the most despised and marginalised minority in Australia right now, and I will stand with them against this totalitarian assault by the state on their right – on everyone’s right – to seek professional help in a time of need.
In taking on such a massive topic, I can only hope to convince you of one thing: that there is hope for people who are distressed by unwanted same-sex attraction. There is good evidence that traditional psychological therapy is as effective and safe for people who want help with these conditions as it is for people who want help for other complex conditions.
Therefore, that therapeutic option must remain open. The state must not ban their liberty by banning access to the therapy that they seek.
My friend James Parker was a gay activist for decades before his newfound faith made him want to move away from that world and become able to marry and have children – which he did. He wrote this month about Premier Andrews’ ban on help for people like him, saying: “The legal chains being melted and cast in Victorian furnaces could well be shackling individuals right across Australia and beyond before too long.”
When Premier Andrews first flagged this proposed ban in 2016, then state Health Minister Jill Hennessy said, “We have zero tolerance for any person purporting to be able to 'convert' gay people through medical or therapeutic means. Any attempts to make people feel uncomfortable with their own sexuality is completely unacceptable.”
I fully agree with her empty assertions, her splendid straw man argument. Because no psychologist I know has ever spoken of “converting” a gay person’s sexuality; no professional would ever seek “to make people feel uncomfortable with their sexuality”. Such assertions are cheap slander from Labor, nothing more. The Greens and gay activists ramp up the slander with scare-mongering about archaic “shock therapy” that no therapist employs, and allegations of harm which are purely anecdotal – of no statistical validity. They use foolish words like “gay cure” which no informed person uses – and I have never used, because complex emotional and behavioural conditions are not open to “cure”, only to modification along a spectrum.
Listen to one man, Daniel, describe his experience of authentic counselling for unwanted same-sex attraction:
I wish I could say there is a “cure” for same-sex attraction, but there is no such thing. Same-sex attraction is something I will struggle with for the rest of my life. But I have been in control of it. It no longer tortures me. And I am attracted to women, when I never was before … There are those who will wish to silence me, and protest the publication of my story. They will describe reparative therapy as a sham. I can only say that I wish someone had told me about it earlier.
In the land of Victoria, where the shadow lies, La Trobe University (which brought you the “Safe Schools” programme) and the Human Rights Law Centre (which was a leading voice in the same-sex marriage debate) have complied an 80 page opinion piece, a one-sided polemic entitled, “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice: Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia”. It calls for “specific legislation to clearly prohibit conversion practices”, and it is the document used by Premier Andrews to justify his ban.
This piece of politicised research reports on 15 (just 15) disgruntled Australians with bad stories to tell about so-called “religious conversion therapy”. These 15 people were recruited, we are told, “through various LGBT, queer and ex-gay-survivor networks”. In other words, through sources which were never going to find any participant who was not disgruntled, who had perhaps happily left the LGBT world behind him. It was never going to find a man like James Parker – or like Michael Glatze, a former pin-up boy for gay culture in the US, who said this a few years ago:
Coming out of homosexuality has been the most liberating thing I have ever felt. I said before, seven years ago, that it was like coming out of a cave and breathing fresh air. Today I can say, being married, that it’s entirely an inversion of homosexuality … It doesn’t feel as though I’ve lost any of my sexuality, it just is working in the right alignment … I feel aligned with my mind, my body, my spirit, my sexuality, with creation… and that alignment is evidenced through the fact that my relationship with my wife is so real, so natural…
Premier Andrew’s proposed ban on the right of people like Daniel or James or Michael to seek help to change is a totalitarian act. It is the state trampling on individual liberty on purely ideological grounds.
And the La Trobe survey serves his ideological ends. If the authors of that study of 15 disgruntled Australians had wanted to paint a truer, fuller picture, they could have started by referencing a peer-reviewed study published just last year, titled “Effects of Therapy on Religious Men Who Have Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction” . This much larger survey directly challenges the claims of harm and ineffectiveness that underly the La Trobe paper. It surveyed “125 men with active lay religious belief who went through sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)” and found that:
… Most of those who participated in group or professional help had heterosexual shifts in sexual attraction, sexual identity and behavior with large statistical effect sizes, similarly moderate-to-marked decreases in suicidality, depression, substance abuse, and increases in social functioning and self-esteem. Almost all harmful effects were none to slight … Judged by this survey, these therapies are very beneficial for lay religious people…
I could give the La Trobe authors a dozen other papers to add balance to their report, but this was not a study seeking academic balance; it was a hit job on pastors and doctors and counsellors who dare to defy LGBT orthodoxy.
Mind you, if the La Trobe document was only arguing that untrained church people should not try to “fix” the complex psychological phenomenon of same-sex attraction, I would agree. I think all of us would be disturbed by certain Christian communities’ misguided and coercive approach as described in the La Trobe study, even including alleged exorcisms. I think pastors and priests should limit themselves to teaching the clear moral truth of sexual behaviour and giving prayerful support to same-sex attracted Christians to live chastely within the body of Christ and leave the deeper exploration of sexual identity to trained clinicians.
I have always admired the balance achieved in the Catholic teaching between being faithful to Biblical teaching and being sensitive to our fellow Christians struggling with same-sex attraction. The Catholic Catechism reads, “Basing itself on sacred scripture… [the Church] has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” but that individuals “do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
The problem for pastors who want to delegate to trained clinicians is, of course, that the La Trobe report and the Labor Government want to prohibit trained clinicians from providing any such support to anyone, Christian or not! The report calls for clinicians’ Codes of Conduct to “explicitly prohibit conversion practices and ensure that enforcement action is actively pursued”. And so church leaders and their gay parishioners would have nowhere to turn for expert help.
The legal chains being forged in Victoria will, as James Parker warned, be shackling individuals and churches across Australia if we do not expose Labor’s lies and assert the liberty of the individual patient against this coercion by the state.
True therapy: no ‘conversion’, no coercion
It is not difficult to demonstrate the truth, through clinical evidence and personal testimony, that expert therapy does indeed help many people to reduce unwanted same-sex attraction and maximise their heterosexual potential; that calling such therapy “dangerous and discredited”, as federal Labor health spokeswoman Catherine King did, is untrue and intemperate.
Look at the practice guidelines of the world’s leading practitioner in this field, the late Dr Joseph Nicolosi, with whom I spoke at length in 2015. I asked him why he coined such a clunky term as “reparative therapy” for this form of talk therapy and he explained that it refers to the repair of emotional wounds through the therapeutic process. As to the principles of this form of counselling, he writes:
First, as with all good therapy, Reparative Therapy (RT) never involves coercion. The client has come to the therapist seeking assistance to reduce something distressing to him, and the RT psychotherapist agrees to share his professional experience and education to help the client meet his own goal. The therapist enters into a collaborative relationship, agreeing to work with the client to reduce his unwanted attractions and explore his heterosexual potential. This collaborative relationship could not, of course, include imposing methods or techniques attempting to “cause” sexual-orientation change – which would, anyway, be quite impossible.
On the sensitive question of young people being brought to the counsellor by worried parents, Nicolosi makes clear that the only thing that counts, the only thing that works, is the autonomous self-motivation of the person seeking help:
Sometimes, the client does not know what he wants, as is often the case with the teenager asked to come into treatment by his parents. In those cases, if the teenager does decide to come in, we agree NOT to work on his homosexuality, and the therapeutic alliance is founded upon some other of the client’s goals, such as managing parental disapproval without family breakup, or dealing with problems of peer rejection.
Another leading therapist I spoke with in 2015, Dr David Pickup, is as scathing as Nicolosi about any talk of “conversion” or shaming people about their homosexuality. He writes:
Did you know that eliminating shame for having homosexual feelings is one of the very first priorities of authentic Reparative Therapy? Aversion techniques, behavioral-only changes, coercive attitudes, electroshock and the like are NOT a part of authentic Reparative Therapy. Truly effective therapy is hard work. Deep emotions are experienced, and wounds are healed. This can, in time, result in spontaneous and successful change.
The professional association to which both Dr Nicolosi and Dr Pickup belong is the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity. It clearly rejects any of these coercive methods and makes this statement on the right of individuals to seek professional help, free of harrassment by the state:
The Alliance respects each client's dignity, autonomy and free agency. We believe that clients have the right to claim a gay identity, or to diminish their homosexuality and to develop their heterosexual potential … “Tolerance and diversity” means nothing if it is extended to activists and not traditionalists on the homosexual issue.
Evidence of harm?
So what merit is there in the Victorian Politburo’s central claim: that therapy aimed at modifying unwanted homosexual attraction is harmful?
You’ve got to undertand that all deep psychological interventions have an expected rate of harm in the range of 10 percent, so there are harmful anecdotes aplenty for any therapy. But anecdotes are no basis for public policy. We need statistically objective evidence of the relative benefits and harms of any intervention, and in the case of “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE, which includes reparative therapy), there is no such evidence.
Advocates of a legislative ban claim support from a report of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2009. But go read that report. Even the overtly biased APA task force who wrote this report – consisting of prominent activists in gay causes and excluding from membership any clinician, no matter how eminent, if they practiced reparative therapy –even this report admits there is no clear evidence of harm:
Early and recent research studies provide no clear evidence of the prevalence of harmful outcomes among people who have undergone efforts to change their sexual orientation or the frequency of the occurrence of harm because no study to date of adequate scientific rigor has been explicitly designed to do so. Thus, we cannot conclude how likely it is that harm will occur from SOCE.
The science is not settled, but that does not stop the APA recommending that this therapy should cease anyway! They admit that we simply do not have objective statistically valid evidence of harm, but their ill-founded prejudice is good enough for progressive governments to act upon. That should dismay all clinicians who value dispassionate science and who defend a client’s right to access professional care at times of distress.
At stake for the caring professions is whether we succumb to politically correct groupthink or stand firm for clinical evidence and client autonomy. The signs are not good. As Dr Nicholas Cummings, former president of the American Psychological Association, lamented: “The APA has chosen ideology over science” and “advocacy for scientific and professional concerns has been usurped by agenda-driven ideologues”.
Evidence of help
That concept of client autonomy is central at Dr Nicolosi’s clinic of seven psychologists in California, which reports helping hundreds of men and women minimise unwanted homosexual attraction and maximise their heterosexual potential.
One of his clients, from Melbourne, rang me and told me he had “never felt so free”; that he had a new-found sense of belonging as a man among men, enjoying normal non-sexual relationships, since he started working with Dr Nicolosi on his unwanted homosexual compulsion. Another client of Dr Nicolosi writes: “If one thing angers me in life it is this: when gay apologists claim that to reject a 'gay identity'' is to be in denial of my true self. My personal experience tells me the opposite!” His life story is typical of the clients Dr Nicolosi sees: men who never felt they belonged as a boy among boys, as a man among men, and whose craving for male connection became sexualised at puberty. This client continues:
Therapy has helped me to connect more with men as brothers to be trusted. For most of my adult life, I only felt fearful of and alienated around men – especially men of my own age group. When I feel masculine within, I have no emotional need to draw on the men 'out there' who are external to me. Was my therapy 'dangerous,' as some critics with an ideological axe to grind try to claim? Well, if growing in self-acceptance and feeling now that I belong around men is 'dangerous,' then I want more of it!
Dr Pickup summarises the psychodynamic theory behind this therapeutic approach:
Gender Identity Inferiority … can be a traumatic experience that is reinforced with shame-based self-beliefs for many years. For the pre-homosexual boy, and for adult men, bullying and repetitive shaming of gender identity from primary male relationships frequently imbed this soul-wrenching shame into the mind of the struggler. The client experiences emotional wounds (often repressed) that prevent the journey from boyhood into manhood from being fully realized. Maleness becomes an object to the struggler instead of something wonderful that is subjectively experienced. The result? … In puberty, when sexual hormones “kick in,” masculinity is objectified and sexualized. Reparative Therapy helps a client resolve these wounds, which can result in the spontaneous lessening and/or dissipation of homosexual feelings.
One such client, Carey, had this to say about the repairing of emotional wounds:
When I began reparative therapy I took on the task of growing from a wounded little boy to a whole (and heterosexual) man. In my relationship with my therapist I have directly received the masculine mentoring that I needed, but did not get as a child. Since I've been in therapy, my homosexual thoughts and feelings have decreased significantly both in frequency and in intensity.
These testimonies, and hundreds like them (see voicesofchange.net for example) defy the claim that reorientation therapy does not work. So does the published evidence.
Clinical research is decades deep for successful sexual reorientation and it shows that about a third of clients gain significant help from various psychological therapies. That figure is comparable to therapeutic intervention for other psychological conditions. You can read of clients under the care of Carl Jung in 1935 and Anna Freud in 1952. Bergler in 1956 reports a hundred men who successfully changed under psychoanalysis (a one-third success rate of all his clients); Bieber and his team of 77 therapists in 1962 treated over a hundred homosexual men and found 27 percent became “exclusively heterosexual”.
Dozens of studies from the second half of the 20th Century demonstrate the same typical ‘one third’ success rate. Of course, that implies that two thirds experience no change or only partial change, but that is comparable to other forms of psychological intervention. As the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity puts it,
As is the case with all forms of psychological care, some individuals report a lack of change. While some people relapse, there are testimonies of persons who have maintained their changes for several decades. The fact that change is not always categorical and is experienced across a continuum is much the same as with any other human condition.
More recently, a study published by Nicolosi and Byrd in the journal Psychological Reports (2000) again found a one-third level of significant change, and noted that some of the input was from social support groups and spiritual counsellors. With that in mind, think again of the anti-religious bigotry that compels Premier Andrews to blanket-ban such faith-based counselling and support.
The number of individual cases not captured in formal studies is large but undefined. Dr Nicholas Cummings, past president of the American Psychological Association, was also Chief of Mental Health at the huge Kaiser-Permanente clinic in San Francisco. During his tenure, the clinic cared for some 18,000 same-sex attracted clients, of whom some 2,400 successfully changed orientation:
Most on presentation did not express a goal of reorienting, but came for a number of related issues and dissatisfactions concerning the [homosexual] life style that eventually elicited a desire to change … When I say that 67% had satisfactory outcomes, the majority of these were able to attain a more happy and sane homosexual lifestyle with stable relationships. This would have been a bit more than 10,000 of the 18,000 presenting, with another 2400 actually reorienting.
There would need to be a lot of lying by clients and fraud by clinicians for all of these findings to be untrue. An alternative explanation is that there are, indeed, individuals who benefit to varying degrees from psychological therapy that helps them understand and modify unwanted same-sex attraction and maximise their heterosexual potential. And who is Daniel Andrews or Bill Shorten to stand in their way?
Live and let live
As former lesbian Melinda Selmys observes,
Gay and lesbian activists have long decried the interference of the “religious right” in their ability to live the sort of lives that they would like. In the process they have, perhaps unthinkingly, created an analogous situation in which psychologists are called to enforce a gay-affirming lifestyle on those who will not have it.
Bob will not have it, and should not be told by politicians where he can or cannot seek help:
Before, I was powerfully attracted to men sexually, but I didn't like them as people … In therapy, I uncovered abuse issues and dealt with the lingering impact of peer abuse and bullying in my past, as well as my disaffection from my father and other men … Now I love being around guys, but have no desire to have sex with them …
My experience is far from unique. Countless people can share personal experiences similar to mine. Don't listen to so-called experts who are more interested in their own political agendas and winning professional accolades than they are in supporting you in what you want out of your own life.
This is a plea to keep political agendas out of the path of such individuals; not to prohibit their liberty for the sake of enforcing the new gay orthodoxy.
David van Gend is a Queensland doctor and president of the Australian Marriage Forum. This is the text of a talk he gave at the Church and State Summit in Brisbane last month.