A group of therapists who believe sexual orientation can be changed are promoting what critics call ‘junk science’ .
PHOENIX — Michael Brown took the dais in a sterile Marriott ballroom last fall, beaming for the 40 or so therapists who form the devout core of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). With a hulking frame packed tightly into a three-button black suit, one of the nation’s most vociferous anti-gay activists began his speech with a dire warning.
The “homosexual agenda” is on the march, he said, and shows no signs of slowing. Gay rights activists, aggressively working to undermine Christian values and the traditional family, have infiltrated the nation’s schools, civic centers and places of worship. The war for the heart of the country is on.
“We need you. I need you,” pleaded the guest speaker, author of the 2011 self-published book A Queer Thing Happened to America. Brown added, “You may be condemned today, but you will be commended tomorrow.”
The urgency was not lost on the therapists in the room, an embattled group that finds itself struggling against a powerful tide of public opinion and accusations that it has produced faulty research to support an anti-gay agenda.
Billing itself as the counterweight to the two most prominent mental health authorities — the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — NARTH pushes the idea, with the zeal of a religious movement, that no one is born gay and that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed through what is known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, also commonly called “ex-gay” therapy. At the heart of this argument is the belief that homosexuality is an unnatural deviation from normal sexual development, a form of mental disorder.
With these views, NARTH has emerged as the preeminent source of what many regard as “junk science” for the religious right — psychology that underpins the anti-gay movement’s fervent opposition to equal rights and stigmatizes LGBT people as mentally sick.
Without the research NARTH provides, there are few avenues remaining for the religious right to condemn homosexuality, at a time when the American public is growing more accepting of LGBT people and more open to extending equal rights to same-sex couples. “There’s no other play in the playbook except going back to the fire and brimstone,” argues Wayne Besen, executive director of Truth Wins Out, one of several watchdog groups monitoring the reparative therapy industry.
But even as NARTH is held up as an authority on the science of homosexuality by both fringe groups and politically potent national organizations like the Family Research Council, its claim that LGBT people can be “cured” of their homosexuality is not backed by the evidence.
In fact, every major American medical authority has concluded that there is no scientific support for NARTH’s view, and many have expressed concern that reparative therapy can cause harm. Most strikingly, in 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) stated: “There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.” The APA added, “Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
And flourish it has.
The LGBT community is overwhelmingly the group most targeted in violent hate crimes, according to an Intelligence Report analysis of 14 years of federal hate crime data. Gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.
Despite this hate-inspired violence, anti-gay groups continue to employ virulent rhetoric that demonizes gay men and lesbians, some of it based on NARTH’s research. This strategy of using science, however flawed, to fortify their religious condemnation of homosexuality was articulated five years ago by the Family Research Institute’s Paul Cameron, a psychologist whose research has been thoroughly discredited by mainstream scientists.
“We can no longer rely — as almost all pro-family organizations do today — on gleaning scientific ‘bits’ from those in liberal academia. ... [W]e must subvert the academy by doing original, honest research ourselves,” Cameron wrote.
Original, maybe. But honest? NARTH’s many critics argue otherwise.
The ‘Purple Menace’
Like many anti-gay activists, NARTH claims that homosexuality is caused by psychological trauma or some other aberration in childhood. Its founding was rooted in a nearly 40-year-old schism that rocked the psychiatric community.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the compendium of known mental disorders. Not all therapists agreed with the decision. Among them were Charles Socarides, Joseph Nicolosi and Benjamin Kaufman, who formed NARTH in 1992 to confront the growing acceptance of homosexuality.
These dissidents believed that the official recognition of homosexuality as a natural variant in human development was a travesty and most certainly the product of an insidious plot now widely derided as the “homosexual agenda.” As Kaufman wrote in an essay published at the time, the mission of their brave new collective was to “understand the homosexual condition and the factors which drive this self-destructive behavior.” NARTH was a strategic answer to a division that pitted socially conservative therapists against their progressive counterparts.
Socarides, a psychoanalyst and the most famous of NARTH’s founders, had gained prominence in the 1960s for his view that homosexuality was a treatable mental illness. “Socarides offered the closest thing to hope that many homosexuals had in the 1960s: the prospect of a cure,” The New York Times wrote three years after NARTH was formed.
In his book Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far, Socarides explained that same-sex attraction was a “neurotic adaptation” that could be traced to “smothering mothers and abdicating fathers.” Not only did he believe that LGBT people could be cured, he thought they should be cured.
When speaking to The Washington Post in 1997, he offered a startlingly grim forecast of what he feared acceptance of gays and lesbians would bring. “Homosexuality is a psychological and psychiatric disorder, there is no question about it,” Socarides claimed. “It is a purple menace that is threatening the proper design of gender distinctions and society.”
While Socarides, NARTH’s first president, died of cardiac arrest in 2005, his sentiments continue to guide the group. Nicolosi, who became president, shared his predecessor’s views, seeing his work in the vein of psychotherapists such as Sigmund Freud, whose work dealt with sexual paraphilias (commonly thought of as perversions). A devout Catholic and endlessly confrontational, Nicolosi was once a spokesman for Focus on the Family, a powerhouse of the anti-gay religious right, and has been a tireless critic of conventional psychiatric thought for most of his career.
In 2009, he asserted that “if you traumatize a child in a particular way, you will create a homosexual condition.” He also has repeatedly said, “Fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.” But his loathing for “the homosexual condition” goes even deeper. In his book A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, which he wrote with his wife in 2002, Nicolosi offered a perspective on homosexuality that seemed to position NARTH closer to the anti-gay activists of the religious right.
“Traditionalists wince at the mental images conjured up by the thought of what homosexuals do in the act of intercourse,” he wrote. “Almost feeling guilty about their visceral reaction, they still cannot help but see such acts as perverse and, in fact, unnatural.”
When the book was published, there was no need for Nicolosi to court the “traditionalists” who opposed homosexuality. Many had already come calling.
Though some anti-gay groups have moderated their positions on homosexuality, and a number of reparative therapists have recanted their beliefs, NARTH remains a bastion of hard-core activists who have dug in even as they are being politically marginalized.
“We live in a climate where it is only politically correct to share misinformation about this topic,” said Julie Hamilton, a former president of NARTH, at the group’s annual conference last November in Phoenix. “We as an organization are swimming against the stream.”
True to form, the people speaking at that conference were not therapists promising revelations about human sexuality, but rather prominent culture warriors of the religious right, like Brown.
Sharon Slater, whose Family Watch International argues that homosexuality is an “assault on marriage, the family, and family related issues” was one of them. In one of the policy briefs on her group’s website, Slater argued that “homosexuality is relatively rare” and, what’s more, treatable. Like many of her fellow anti-gay leaders, Slater has ties to activists in Uganda who are lobbying for the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill, but she made no mention of that in Phoenix as she catalogued a global effort to undermine family values through United Nations-sanctioned “comprehensive sexual education” programs. The UN, she argued, is seeking to indoctrinate children into the “gay lifestyle.” In Slater’s assessment, fighting homosexuality is “the battle of our time.”
These are not new associations for NARTH. Since its founding, the group has aligned its mission with some of the most venomous purveyors of anti-gay propaganda.
In 1995, for example, NARTH featured Scott Lively, co-author of The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, at its annual conference. Lively’s book argues that the Nazi Party recruited gay men because of their inherent savagery and that gay men largely orchestrated the Holocaust — a claim roundly rejected by all reputable historians. NARTH has also promoted the work of Paul Cameron, who remains director of the Family Research Institute despite being ejected from the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association (ASA). The ASA declared, “Dr. Cameron has consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”
One NARTH critic, a former member, says these associations are the results of work that has been patterned to conform to an ideology.
“When it comes to science, you can’t let your religious views color what is. And I think NARTH does that all the time,” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at a Christian college and past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association who has counseled clients conflicted about their sexual identity for years. NARTH’s constituents, he added, are usually “the right-wing groups who feel they needed that information to offset gay rights initiatives.”
In recent years, NARTH has suffered several embarrassing episodes, caused not by its alliances but by its own members.
In 2007, Nicolosi came under fire after an essay seeming to justify slavery appeared on NARTH’s website. In the piece, “Gay Rights and Political Correctness: A Brief History,” Dr. Gerald Schoenewolf, a New York psychotherapist and member of the group’s science advisory committee, wrote, “Africa at the time of slavery was still primarily a jungle. ... Life there was savage ... and those brought to America, and other countries, were in many ways better off.” (Nicolosi stepped down as NARTH president after criticism mounted, but he remains instrumental in the group.)
Then, in 2010, George Rekers, a psychologist and also a scientific adviser to NARTH, was photographed at Miami International Airport with a 20-year-old male prostitute who had accompanied him on a 10-day European vacation. Rekers insisted he had hired the man, who advertised his services on Rentboy.com, merely to carry his luggage. The man disagreed. He told reporters he had given Rekers daily nude massages that included genital contact.
While such very public controversies would normally tarnish an organization, NARTH has proven lastingly resilient. “They are still a force to be reckoned with,” said Besen of Truth Wins Out.
The Defiant Future
One of those attending NARTH’s conference last fall was Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies for the Family Research Council (FRC), a politically prominent anti-gay group that has made numerous false claims denigrating the LGBT community. Sprigg has encouraged deporting LGBT people and recriminalizing homosexuality. During a question-and-answer session at the conference, Sprigg asked a question that offered a revealing look at the state of the anti-gay movement and the future of reparative therapy.
The FRC was one of 13 anti-gay organizations listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010, a move that prompted the group to quietly implement a campaign to soften its image. The hate group listing was Sprigg’s concern.
“I wonder if you have any advice to countering a charge of hate,” Sprigg asked Brown, who had been encouraging the people in the room to be courageous in their opposition to homosexuality. “[Hate] is the label that is always thrown at it, and I’m realizing that it begins to take effect.” Brown could only encourage Sprigg to be compassionate.
Several weeks later, the FRC released a policy paper called “Debating Homosexuality: Understanding Two Views.” In the paper, Sprigg relied heavily on NARTH’s research to argue that homosexuality is “objectively harmful” to people and communities. In the same paper, he offered an olive branch to gay men and lesbians: reparative therapy.
Even though activists like Sprigg continue to tout reparative therapy and cite NARTH, it seems clear the group is quickly approaching a crossroads.
Not only is NARTH being condemned by LGBT rights activists, its insistence that gay men and lesbians can be “cured” is increasingly being criticized by practitioners who have abandoned reparative therapy.
John Smid, the former executive director of the Tennessee-based Love in Action (LiA), an ex-gay Christian ministry, recently castigated reparative therapists for peddling a false philosophy that condemns homosexuality on moral terms. On his personal blog he wrote, “I have still yet to hear one man [after therapy] say I am completely heterosexual, and I am no longer having any sexual attractions to men.”
Meanwhile, one major player in the industry appears to be in serious financial trouble. Ex-Gay Watch, which investigates reparative therapy, has reported that Exodus International, one of the largest practitioners of reparative therapy, was nearing financial ruin in November and in dire need of a new message — something softer, something more tolerant.
But NARTH, for now, doesn’t seem interested in softening its stance. With a new generation of reparative therapists and anti-gay activists continuing to take up the cause, more groups have turned to NARTH.
As Nicolosi proudly claimed in a 2010 video touting the benefits of reparative therapy: “The strategy of the gay activists, the strategy of gay psychiatrists within the American Psychiatric Association, was to ignore us. We can’t be ignored.”
Maybe Nicolosi hasn’t noticed, but LGBT rights activists are no longer ignoring NARTH. Rather, they’re seeing it as roadblock to be swept aside in their march toward equality.
Evelyn Schlatter contributed to this report