When James Guay was 12, he went into a Christian bookstore to look for information on what was wrong with him. He found just one book on homosexuality -- "on how to change it," he recalled. When he brought it to the counter, the clerk asked if it was for him. "She said she would pray for me," he said.
A few years later Guay had a nervous breakdown and told his parents what was distressing him. His father, a pastor, helped him find a licensed "ex-gay" psychologist. The psychologist said he had been gay, but now was married to a woman. He told Guay that change was possible. "It was this newfound hope," Guay said. Within six months to a year, the therapist promised him, Guay could overcome his attraction to men and learn to be attracted to women.
Two months ago, Guay testified at a hearing on a new bill in the California State Legislature that would ban the "gay cure," as this type of therapy is known. The bill is the first of its kind in the U.S., and observers expect it to pass by the end of August. If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs it, licensed therapists who try to change the sexual orientation of minors will run the risk of losing their licenses.
"I wanted parents to understand that this therapy is crazy," said Sen. Ted Lieu, the California Democrat who authored the bill.
The passage of SB 1172 would be the latest in a series of recent actions signaling a widespread condemnation of the practice. Almost all mainstream mental health organizations, from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Psychological Association, have renounced it. The World Health Organization has released a statement saying that such methods "lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being" of patients. Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist who published a widely cited study supporting the "gay cure" practice in 2003, recently apologized for his work in the journal where the original paper appeared.
"I believe I owe the gay community an apology," he wrote.
For more than three decades, one of the leading forces behind the practice of attempting to change sexual orientation was Exodus International, a nonprofit group. In June, the head of Exodus International declared at its annual meeting that there was no cure for homosexuality and that the promise of one offered false hope to gays. Just a few years before, he and his wife had starred in advertisements saying, "Change is possible."
Still, there aren't any scientific studies showing that the practice actually causes harm. Anecdotal reports of depression, even suicide, abound, and a task force convened by the American Psychological Association found the practice to be both harmful and ineffective. But when the government regulates a behavior, like driving without a seatbelt or smoking, they can usually draw on volumes of data demonstrating that the behavior hurts people. That isn't the case here, and the few remaining supporters of the practice stress this fact.
David Pruden, the vice president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a group whose website proclaims that it "offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality," sees the bill as a "solution in search of a problem."
He maintains that there are people who can, "with the help of a well trained therapist, move through a process where they grow away from homosexual attraction and move towards heterosexual attraction." He gave the example of a child who is molested by an adult of the same sex. "One suggestion would be you're confused, you're not gay. Now this bill is saying that for a therapist to suggest to someone that they're not gay is somehow illegal or would be wrong."
Mainstream psychological organizations in California were initially opposed to the law for similar reasons, but they withdrew their opposition after working with Sen. Lieu on the language of the bill. "Quite naturally there are many times when an adolescent is exploring their sexual identity and they may want to talk to a therapist about that," said Jo Linder-Crow, the executive director of the California Psychological Association. "We wanted to make sure that legitimate therapy would not be caught up in the definition used in the bill."
The idea of a gay cure goes back to a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and "sodomy" a crime. In the years after World War II, as therapy became a widespread practice in the U.S., the idea of psychiatric treatment for homosexuality was seen as a humane alternative to institutionalization or jail. In the '70s, the American Psychiatric Institution removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, and most psychiatrists and psychologists abandoned the practice. Around the same time, though, Exodus International was formed. Christian groups picked up where mainstream therapists had left off.
It's hard to say why the "gay cure" practice has received so much attention in just the last few months. "People have had these concerns about it for a long time," said Clinton Anderson, the director of the American Psychological Association's office for LGBT issues. "What may be different is a sense that there's a political will, at least in certain places, to do something more signifiant about it."
Anderson says there's no way of knowing how widespread the practice is, or how many psychiatrists perform it. The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, for its part, does not divulge its membership numbers, thought it does say that its members operate in all 50 states and in a number of other countries.
Guay, who now runs his own therapeutic practice for people who have been scarred by experiences like his, spent a year with the ex-gay therapist and then got involved with Exodus International, attending several of their conferences. He started dating a woman, but it didn't work out. "I ended that relationship and began a relationship with a man," he said.
It was only at that point that he had what a therapist might call a breakthrough."'Oh wait,'" he said, recalling his thinking at the time. "'This feels authentic and right.'"
UPDATE: The California Psychological Association is now supporting this bill. On Friday in a press release, Linder-Crow, the executive director, said, "Of course we want to ensure that legitimate therapy regarding normal developmental issues of sexual orientation and identity is readily available to minors, and it is also our job to protect our members from undue risk. However, consistent with the overwhelming weight of research available, we believe that Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, where the therapist’s intent is to direct, redirect, or influence an individual’s sexual orientation, are potentially harmful and have no place as a part of legitimate psychological practice."
American neurologist Graeme M. Hammond suggests bicycling as a cure for homosexuality. <a href="http://web.me.com/lookoutfilms/Ten_More_Good_Years/LGBT_History_files/timeline only.pdf" target="_hplink">He believed</a> "homosexuality was rooted in nervous exhaustion and that bicycle exercise would restore health and heterosexuality."
In 2009 Manifested Glory Ministries came under fire when a 20-minute video posted on YouTube showed a 16 year old <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31528426/ns/us_news-faith/t/church-creates-stir-gay-exorcism-video/#.Tq8TLGVPlcg" target="_hplink">being subjected to an exorcism</a> to "cure" him of his homosexuality. The boy is shown writhing as church members stand on his feet, hold him under the arms and scream, "Come on, you homosexual demon! You homosexual spirit, we call you out right now! Loose your grip, Lucifer!"
Electroconvulsive therapy has long been a go-to tool for "curing" homosexuality and is still used to this day. In October Nathan Manske, <a href="http://www.imfromdriftwood.com/" target="_hplink">the founder and Executive Director of I'm From Driftwood</a>, a 501(c)(3) non-profit forum for true lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer stories, shared the story of Samuel Brinton on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-manske/gay-conversion-therapy_b_997330.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost Gay Voices.</a> Brinton was raised in rural Iowa and he spoke of growing up gay in a conservative, Southern Baptist family that subjected him to forced Christian conversion therapy. "We then went into the 'Month of Hell,'" Brinton explains in the video above. "The 'Month of Hell' consisted of tiny needles being stuck into my fingers and then pictures of explicit acts between men would be shown and I'd be electrocuted." <em>Clarification on November 13 at 5:45pm ET: Though Brinton uses the term "electrocuted," this actually refers to death by electric shock. The correct term is electroconvulsive therapy.</em>
Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German psychiatrist who practiced during the 19th century, prescribed a trip to a brothel, preceded by lots of drinking, to cure men of their homosexuality. Women who were "afflicted," <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=Ra4bT-kE0Z4C&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=hypnosis+Albert+von+Schrenck-Notzing+homosexuality+brothel&source=bl&ots=HwcZAb_yJ-&sig=ywfKk0u0g3UbrC-Qzt61RnzT33s&hl=en&ei=9hOrTsXHLOrn0QG549WBDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false" target="_hplink">it's noted</a>, "were referred only to their husbands."
Hypnotism was a common tool used during the 19th century to "cure" homosexuals. When Schrenck-Notzing wasn't busy sending gay men to brothels, he was hypnotizing them. In 1892 the German psychiatrist <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDEQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.unav.es%2Ficf%2Fmain%2Ftop%2Fdiciembre09%2FNarth_What-research-shows-homosexuality.pdf&ei=Ns-" target="_hplink">reported success in treating</a> 32 cases of "sexual perversions." Of the 32 cases, 12 were classified as "cured," meaning "the patients were completely able to 'combat fixed ideas [about homosexuality], deepen a sense of duty, self-control, and right-mindedness.'"
Günther Dorner, who worked with the Institute for Experimental Endocrinology in the middle of the 20th century, <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=4-kcUVAOTWYC&pg=PA193&lpg=PA193&dq="G%C3%BCnther+Dorner"+gay&source=bl&ots=RHRSLdreln&sig=rVv6DW4_3UnTLH9QlrCqdhrvonA&hl=en&ei=0d-uTs78E4bt0gHCmeSbCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q&f=false" target="_hplink">believed that homosexuality</a> is "determined by prenatal gendering of the brain caused by endocrinological disturbances." He hypothesized that if you could alter any hormonal imbalances present in the womb -- as he attempted to do with fetal rats -- homosexuality could be prevented before it even developed.
'Overdosing' On Homosexuality
In the 1960s British psychologist I. Oswald would pump a gay man full of nausea-inducing drugs before surrounding him with glasses of urine and playing audio recordings of men having sex. Oswald was attempting to "overdose" gay men on homosexuality in hopes that they would "<a href="http://www.glreview.com/article.php?articleid=42" target="_hplink">turn to women for relief</a>."
In June of 2011 Hong Kong <a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hJrR2qwJP3LebrZk-UYhAXq1ZzPA?docId=CNG.fb6f66e08eae0ce02ece50a72ee19eda.1f1" target="_hplink">reportedly hired a psychiatrist</a> to give a government-sponsored training session on conversion therapy. Among the techniques Hong Kwai-wah suggested for "curing" homosexuality were cold showers, prayer, and abstinence.
Eugen Steinach (1861-1944), director of the Biological Institute in Vienna, believed that homosexuality was the result of hormonal imbalances. To prove his hypothesis, the scientist implanted sex organs in neutered rats and Guinea pigs and claimed to have conducted successful "sex change" operations on the rodents. Steinach's research didn't end with animals. He <a href="http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/29/turner.php" target="_hplink">also transplanted testicles</a> from heterosexual men into gay men in hopes of "remasculizing the recipient."
Cocaine, Strychnine, Genital Mutilation
Physician Denslow Lewis believed that women brought up in wealthy 19th century homes could develop "sexual hyperesthesia [excessive sensitivity to stimuli]" and become lesbians. In order to cure these women <a href="http://www.glreview.com/article.php?articleid=42" target="_hplink">he prescribed</a> "cocaine solutions, saline cathartics, the surgical "liberation" of adherent clitorises, or even the administration of strychnine by hypodermic." Though he claimed that some of his patients were "cured" and became wives and mothers, one went insane and died in an asylum.
"Pray the gay away!" has become the battle cry of the conversion therapy movement. From <a href="http://www.thenation.com/article/161883/michele-bachmann-husband-ex-gay-therapy" target="_hplink">Marcus Bachmann's alleged conversion clinic</a> to <a href="http://outspokennyc.com/shoutout/scuse-me-gay-sashay-away" target="_hplink">an ex-gay iPhone app</a>, those who believe homosexuality is not only wrong but curable rely on the power of prayer to make a miracle happen.