On February 27th, Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest daily newspapers, printed the following headline: “Evangelical caucus’ bill proposes to legalize ‘gay cure’”. Other newspapers have also highlighted the story and, thanks to the internet, a few days were enough to spread the news rapidly. Most newspapers and websites have not served the public well on the issue. However, discussion on the topic confronts us with two debates of paramount importance for Brazilian society, which go far beyond this episode: one, that on the prevailing conception of human being; the second, is on the issue of freedom of expression. In addressing these debates in a shallow way, Brazilian media has done a disservice to society, especially to the group most exposed to the news: homosexual men and women who consider their sexual orientation an issue.
In 1999, Brazilian’s Federal Council of Psychology (FCP) announced a Resolution which established standards of performance for psychologists on the issue of sexual orientation. Resolution 1/1999 assumed an anthropological conception that naturalizes sexual impulses, much like the vision behind the creation of the homosexual identity.
The Resolution had six articles, but two of them were the most significant. Through its articles 3 and 4, the Resolution stated that Brazilian psychologists
(a) Cannot consider homosexual orientation as something susceptible to cure or treatment, and
(b) Cannot publicly refer to homosexual orientation as some kind of problem.
Since the Resolution’s publication, at least two Brazilian psychologists had problems with the Federal Council. They were threatened with the loss of their license if they continued to express the view, through their personal blogs, that homosexual orientation could be treated. Both psychologists are Christians.
The situation remained unchanged until June 2011, when the leader of Brazilian evangelical caucus, Congressman João Campos, introduced a bill aimed at removing the two mentioned articles – just those two, not the whole Resolution. At present, the bill is being reviewed by a committee. In Brazil, the processing of congressmen’s bills is slow, and usually ends up being archived at the end of the life of the legislature, without even being considered. Indeed, Campos’ project is the second of this kind, since the first, written by another congressman, was eventually forgotten.
It must be acknowledged that the Resolution in question has a commendable aspect. It prohibits psychologists from discriminating against the sexual orientation of their patients. In the world of psychotherapy, nothing seems more atrocious than the discrimination against a patient, whether it is due to race, gender, social class, creed or sexual orientation. It seems clear that a discriminatory act against a patient should be followed by some kind of punishment to the psychologist in question, maybe even the loss of his or her license.
However, the Resolution does not establish clear standards for psychologists with a homosexual client who is dissatisfied with his or her situation. In its current form, the Resolution indicates that, even though psychologist and client strongly believe that homosexual orientation is problematic, any initiative on the part of the psychologist to move in this direction is prohibited.
Most of Brazilian media saw nothing wrong with that. Instead, its general approach was to characterize Christian psychologists as intolerant fanatics. Needless to say, this is not a specific problem of Brazilian media, or even of Brazilian society. In fact, there is a large consensus that, on the anthropological grounds, sees sexual impulses as one of the first definers of individuality. Moreover, the homosexual movement has long defended the idea that homosexual orientation is due mainly to biological traits, and not psychological ones. The defence of this idea can be understood historically as a response to the need homosexuals had to create a “homosexual identity”, so that they could claim rights from it. A little look at the U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with this subject shows that, until very recently, the penal codes of some states criminalized sodomy, even if consensual. Perhaps the change in this scenario has, at least partially, required the creation of the homosexual identity.
Based on this anthropological conception, most of Brazilian public opinion seeks, with good intentions, to protect the rights of homosexuals. However, in doing so, it generally accepts the premise that human sexual orientation is fixed and determined. Therefore, it refuses to consider seriously the possibility that some homosexuals have to, in full possession of their consciousness, consider their sexual orientation a problem which needs to be treated. Effort by homosexuals to change their sexual orientation is generally regarded as a mistake, based on a false view of the world and of themselves, and explained by the prejudicial environment to which they have supposedly been exposed. Although the increasing number of reports of people who reversed their homosexual orientation, as Melinda Selmys did, should create some kind of positive impact on public opinion, homosexuals who want help in Brazil still seem not to be taken seriously. It’s okay if a heterosexual “comes out” as a homosexual, but the opposite is strictly prohibited.
This takes us, however, to the second and no less important issue raised by congressman Campos’ bill: the right to freedom of expression. First of all, it is important to remember that current liberal democracies rightly guarantee the right of citizens to political apathy and, more important, the right to be left alone. It is assumed that, whatever a homosexual’s opinion is about himself, the last thing he wants is to be bothered by people telling him how to lead his life. Likewise, it goes without saying that a homosexual who is told by his psychologist that he should seek a cure, without having shown any desire for it, would feel rightly offended.
Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that, with the current Resolution, Brazilian psychologists have their freedom of expression severely restricted. Actually, the problem goes well beyond the dispute between psychologists and the Federal Council. Conflict between Christian groups and homosexual movements is occurring in most of liberal democracies. It looks like a “zero sum” game, a situation in which the gain of one part necessarily leads to the loss of the other: on one side there is a group whose sexual orientation is a constitutive element of its identity; on the other there is a group which rejects the very idea that sexual orientation could define a human being. For homosexuals, any speech that refers to homosexual orientation as a deviation, disorder, disease or even a problem is an expression of prejudice. For Christians, any law that limits their freedom to say that homosexual orientation is a problem violates their freedom of expression.
The lack of consensus on this issue, in the short term, presents Brazilian society with a problem. One must think what kind of trade-off between civil liberties and civil rights is desirable. But to all of those who share an anthropological conception different from the one espoused by public opinion in Brazilian, whether it be religious or not, it is also necessary to fight for a broader view of human nature. Men and women are defined by many things before their sexual orientation. One should recognize that homosexual movements achieved rights that should be preserved. However, it is not possible to ignore the perils of a reductionist view of the human being. In this case, such a view threatens the freedom of homosexuals to seek treatment, as well as the freedom of psychologists to offer them.
Fabio Lacerda M. Silva is a social scientist engaged in postgraduate work in political science at University of São Paulo (USP).