Psychobabble: NARTH and “curing” homosexuality

By Keir Liddle

The relationship between homosexuality and psychiatry has been controversial for much of the 20th century. Homosexuality was considered a mental health condition and a disorder of sexual preference rather than a sexual orientation. It took until 1973 for homosexuality to be declassified as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and in 1975 by the American Psychological association.

However there are still organisations that believe homosexuality should be treated as a pathology and a mental health condition. One such organisation is NARTH (the National Association for Reparative Therapy of Homosexuality). They promote treatment and “effective” psychological therapy available to  homosexual men and women who wish to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual. NARTH believes that their organisation:

 “upholds the rights of the individual with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care”.

It is a position that has attracted support from former American Psychological Association(APA) Presidents Robert Perloff and Nicholas Cummings who both share a belief that the APA has become intolerant of differing views and has permitted political correctness to triumph over science, clinical knowledge and professional integrity. They claim that it is not the APAs role to become therapeutic gatekeepers and keep treatment from individuals who wish to undergo “reperative therapy”.

But what drives people to seek “reparative” therapy?

Two volunteer accounts were recently published on the EDGEonthenet site. The accounts seem to indicate fairly clearly that the two gay men volunteering for therapy did so because of social pressures and norms that told them who they were and how they felt was a sin. They entered into reperative therapy because their family and friends thought there was something wrong with them as one of the men puts it:

"Now they don’t talk about making gay people straight," Kendall says. "They talk about suppressing sexual attraction, but it’s all the same shtick. Suppressing who you are because society doesn’t want you to be that person, it’s damaging. There is nothing wrong with people being who they are."

These two anecdotal accounts illustrate the fears of nearly all major mental health organisations over such “therapies”  they worry that there is no scientifically adequate evidence to support the effectiveness or safety of any therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation. They are concerned that such therapies simply serve to promote a negative climate for LGBT individuals by reinforcing stereotypes about sexual orientation that are particularly prominent in  more conservative religious settings. These organisations see the role of therapy being to help individuals coming to terms with their sexuality. Helping that person actively cope with social prejudices against homosexuality, successfully resolve issues associated with and resulting from internal conflicts, and actively lead a happy and satisfying life.

The APA issued a report that noted the harm that could arise from attempts to alter or suppress sexual orientation that included mild to severe depression, increased anxiety, suicidal ideation, impotence and relationship dysfunction. Though the report notes that many studies on reperative or conversion therapy failed to adequately explore or report the potential harm that could arise from the “treatment” it concludes that attempts to change sexual orientation may cause or exacerbate distress and poor mental health in some individuals, including depression and suicidal thoughts.

Overall the “politically correct” science that the former APA presidents and NARTH believe to be informing attitudes towards homosexuality seems to raise concerns about these therapeutic interventions that those promoting them have singularly failed to address. The role of any therapist dealing with issues related to homosexuality should not be to enforce the morality of others but to support the individuals seeking treatment.

It is not the role of the therapist to promote junk science and harm individuals in light of their own prejudices.