I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Alicia Salzer, a psychiatrist and member of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists and somewhat of an expert on reparative therapy. Most professional counseling organizations like the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association denounce reparative therapy as not only highly unsuccessful, but as harmful.
What is the potential for harm with reparative therapy?“There is quite a bit,” Dr. Salzer said. “There is personal harm and then there is harm to others, for example families. A lot of people in reparative therapy are encouraged to get married. This is the ultimate goal that proves you’ve changed. People are encouraged to date, get married and have children. Ultimately, the homosexual feelings are still there and they end up cheating, or they end up leaving their family.”
But that is not the only harm. As a professional, she actually says reparative therapy is unethical. “On a personal level it’s harmful because clients are told that they can change, that others have changed, that if they fail it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough.”
She said that because homosexuality is not seen as an illness, then there is no reason for a cure. She likens it to an anorexic patient asking for help in getting thinner. “You don’t collude in that,” she said. “You don’t do anything that might bring harm to a person.”
Instead, an ethical therapist would help a client deal with the challenges of being gay.
Why would someone want to change from gay to straight?As someone who is pretty happy in my own skin, I wondered why someone would want to change. Dr. Salzer said, "I think it’s hard to understand if you don’t grow up in a very religious climate to feel the overwhelming pressure of being told that what you are fundamentally is an abomination in the eyes of your parents, your siblings, your friends, your god. Also if you grow up conservative Christian you’re not told that lots of gay people have normal happy relationships. What they say is it’s a series of anonymous sexual encounters leading to drug addiction, AIDS and death, followed by which, you’re going to burn in hell forever. So if you grow up as conservative Christian, the situation looks very dire.
When you grow up a fundamentalist, you’re not listening to the same radio, as everyone. You’re not watching the same TV as everyone. You’re quite isolated from the larger world. Those kids don’t watch Will & Grace. Those kids don’t have access to a gay community to see the diversity of gay people that are out there. They’re taught by their church what it means to be gay and it’s not pretty. The thought of losing your family and your friends and your church and having a terrible life and burning in hell, it’s no wonder they want to change.”
What’s a better option for someone who is Christian and Gay?Dr. Salzer says that to find a gay-affirming church where you can reconcile your sexual orientation with your religion and your god. Therapy can still be helpful, but she suggests a psychiatrist that is not faith-based.
Abomination: Homosexuality and the Ex-Gay MovementDr. Alicia Salzer is the director and producer of a new film called Abomination about the ex-gay movement. In the movie we hear from Mary Lou Wallner whose daughter committed suicide after unsuccessful attempts to become straight. Dr. Salzer says parents are coached not to love their children unconditionally, but to repeat over and over that their lifestyle is not acceptable. “I know Mary Lou in the film is heart sick because she really thought she was doing what was best for her daughter. She really thought her daughter was going down a sinful and dangerous path and as a mother, you’d do anything to protect your child from what will certainly bring her misery and a life in hell.”
What do the ministries get out of reparative therapy?Dr. Salzer says, “That’s a tricky question for me to answer because I can only hypothesize.” She said groups like Exodus, Focus on the Family and National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality would not talk to her for her film. She continues, “I know it is a big money industry. Reparative therapy is not cheap. It’s not uncommon for someone to spend between $10,000 and $30,000 on this. Outside of that I have to say that many of them really do believe they are saving souls and they are really trying to help.”
She adds, “But I also thing there’s a political motivation as well. There is a lot going on about gay rights and gay marriage. There’s a motivation to prove that being gay is a choice. Because if we can change, then it’s a choice. And if it’s a choice, do we really deserve rights?”