Accordingly, I’m sharing with you today an article I wrote for the February 2008 issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice. As you’ll see, it’s the first in a two-part series that looks at CPCSM’s January 29 program, and basically summarizes the contribution made by Dr. John C. Gonsiorek.
On January 29, 2008, the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) sponsored an educational program entitled, “The Myth of ‘Conversion Therapy’ and the Pseudo Science of NARTH.”
Held in Minneapolis at the House of the Beloved Disciple, this program featured two local licensed psychologists, Jeffry G. Ford and John C. Gonsiorek, who shared their perspective on the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH) and the theory and practice of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, advocated by NARTH and other so-called ex-gay ministries and organizations.
These “ex-gay” entities are adamant that homosexuality is preventable in childhood and treatable in adulthood, and that most gays and lesbians can successfully convert to heterosexuality through what they label “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy.”
The program was prompted by recent efforts on the part of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolisto promote NARTH as a credible scientific organization. For instance, in the November 8 issue of The Catholic Spirit (the official newspaper of the archdiocese), Fr. Jim Livingston (1) endorsed NARTH by citing the organization as a useful resource and by encouraging people to visit its website so as “to learn . . . about the emotional root causes of homosexuality.”
Fr. Livingston also recommended an audio CD of a talk given by NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, an individual whom Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt, when he was a bishop in Detroit, invited to speak to the priests of the archdiocese as an “expert” on homosexuality.
Many Catholics are concerned by the local archdiocese’s increasing reliance on the perspective and “findings” of NARTH to support and validate church teaching on homosexuality.
In this first of two articles, CPCSM executive coordinator Michael Bayly highlights the insights and information presented by John C. Gonsiorek, PhD (2) during his January 29 presentation at the House of the Beloved Disciple. In the March issue of The Progressive Voice, Michael will share highlights from Jeffrey Ford’s contribution to CPCSM’s program, “The Myth of ‘Conversion Therapy’ and the Pseudo-Science of NARTH.”
Part I – A “Fraudulent Healthcare System”
Dr. Gonsiorek began his presentation with words of advice for Catholics troubled by the Archdiocese’s efforts to present NARTH as a legitimate scientific organization and to use its “findings” to validate church teaching on the “disordered” nature of homosexuality.
“If you’re going to challenge the archdiocese in its attempts to introduce what I consider to be a ‘fraudulent healthcare service,’” said Gonsiorek, “then you need to become educated about what the behavioral sciences say about sexual orientation. That has to be the base from which you operate as opposed to reacting to the ‘flakiness’ of organizations like NARTH.”
For the most up-to-date information regarding sexual orientation, Gonsiorek recommends the website of the American Psychological Association, and in particular, this site’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns page, its Guidelines for Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, and its Division 44, also known as the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues.
The Origins of NARTH
Dr. Gonsiorek then proceeded to provide some insightful background information on the origins of NARTH – origins inseparable from the wider cultural debate on homosexuality and, specifically, the American Psychiatric Association's 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its official manual that lists mental and emotional disorders (followed two years later by the passage of a similar resolution of the American Psychological Association).
This change in the diagnosis of homosexuality was the result of the wealth of research data gathered since the early 1950s that showed no difference between homosexual and heterosexual populations in terms of “adjustment.”
Gonsiorek also noted that a significant “sea change” took place in the early 1970s when biological psychiatry began taking over the field of behavioral science from the psychoanalytical establishment. Indeed, the change in the diagnosis of homosexuality, says Gonsiorek, was “essentially a run-up of a long-standing fight” between these two groups, and was an important moment for the biological psychiatrists, “not only because they had a strong data base to support such a change, but because the psychoanalysts had always considered human sexuality to be their domain.”
In time, the psychoanalytical establishment also changed in its understanding of homosexuality; it now has the same sets of policies and principles about sexual orientation as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Yet there were “old guard” psychoanalysts who were disgruntled about being displaced and seeing their organization change its views on homosexuality. This disaffected group of psychoanalysts formed an alliance with conservatively- and religiously-oriented psychotherapists. It was from this alliance that NARTH was established.
The problem with “conversion therapy”
Gonsiorek then outlined the problem with “conversion” or “reparative” therapy, the theory and practice that treats homosexuality as a pathology, as a disorder that can be “repaired” and changed.
“It’s nonsensical to have a treatment for a diagnosis that doesn’t exist,” says Gonsiorek. “With homosexuality being de-pathologized in 1973, what exactly is being treated? There is no data to support that sexual orientation can be changed and there’s no reason to change it; there’s no impairment.”
So why do people subject themselves to such a “nonsensical” treatment? Gonsiorek notes that there can be a “a great deal of coercion, a great deal of social pressure in some families and communities for those struggling with homosexual feelings to submit to conversion therapy. If they don’t, they’ll be socially ostracized.
Some ex-gay therapists insist that in recommending and/or offering conversion or reparative therapy they are merely giving people a choice as consumers to meet their personal health goals. This argument, says Gonsiorek is “specious and borders on malpractice.” Healthcare providers, he insists, “should not just do what consumers want but offer services that are based on established standards of care. And if the consumer wants something that is flakey, the answer is ‘No.’ To give them what’s flakey is malpractice.”
Gonsiorek also noted an “obvious sexism associated with the ex-gay movement.” “Most of the change efforts are focused on men,” he says. “Women are not so important to the ex-gay ministers and therapists.”
And there is yet another issue: If women marry supposedly ex-gay men and the marriage fails, it’s these women and any children produced by the marriage that suffer. “There’s a lot of this type of ‘collateral damage,’” says Gonsiorek, “but it’s rarely talked about by NARTH and the wider ex-gay establishment.”
Gonsiorek also observed that: “This whole discussion on reparative therapy is occurring in a socio-political context in which it’s becoming standard practice for both corporations and right-wing religious organizations to heavily fund institutes and think-tanks, and to purchase the science they want.”
“We saw this very dramatically with the tobacco company lawsuits, where the tobacco companies, for decades, bought their own science to support their positions,” he said. Yet despite the pseudo-science being exposed in such cases, “the funding by right-wing organizations within the scientific community and within church organizations [remains] big business,” notes Gonsiorek.
“It’s understandable,” says Gonsiorek, “that the lay public can become confused when every behavioral health organization does not support reparative therapy, and yet there are these official-sounding organizations, endorsed by people like archbishops, that make the argument that they are just one more credible voice among many.”
The real issue
At one point during his presentation, Gonsiorek was asked: “How do the people involved with groups like NARTH respond to the reality that every major professional organization in the behavioral sciences disagrees with them?”
Gonsiorek noted that they often attempt to “re-pathologize” homosexuality by making the following argument: Because certain subsets of the lesbian and gay population have higher rates of certain problems, it must mean there’s inherent pathology.
In response to this ploy, Gonsiorek notes that: “In reality, every group that is treated as second class has higher rates of both mental and physical health problems. If you treat people badly, they get messed up. You don’t need a PhD to figure that out. Yet we don’t say that women are inherently pathological because they have a higher rate of depression and eating disorders. Neither do we say that Native Americans are inherently pathological because they have higher rates of alcoholism.”
The “real issue,” says Gonsiorek, “is that if you can find anyone at all in the given population who is not pathological, then that disproves that the group is pathological. If you have a 20 percent higher base rate of a particular problem within a population, and if there are people within that population for whom that particular problem is not an issue, than it’s clear that something else is going on other than inherent pathology.”
Exploring the issue further, Gonsiorek noted that: “What often happens with people who are maneuvered into reparative therapy is that they’ve been trashed for years by churches and communities – even by their own families. As a result, they’re often depressed and anxious. That’s what the problem is, and that’s what requires treatment. So the reparative therapy is often done instead of what needs to be done – which is to undo the damage caused by harassment, ostracism, and disparagement.”
Science and religion
Gonsiorek concluded his talk by noting that “both the behavioral sciences and religion attempt to understand the human condition and to respond to problems within the human condition.” Yet he was adamant that science and religion are “not the same, and that one cannot speak for the other.”
“For a church leader to tell you what is good behavioral science,” he said, “carries about as much weight as your Uncle Joe telling you.”
Reflecting on the current situation in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Gonsiorek said: “As a psychologist, I find it almost fraudulent for someone [like Archbishop Nienstedt] who claims to be a moral authority to be grandly operating in an area in which they have no competence.”
The Progressive Catholic Voice
For Part II of “Debunking NARTH,” click here.
1. Fr. Jim Livingston serves as lead chaplain to the local chapter of Courage (which, as I noted above, goes by the name of Faith in Action in the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese). Courage purports to help people move beyond “same-sex attraction” by encouraging a life of “interior chastity in union with Christ.” The movement labels itself a “pro-chastity ministry,” and equates chastity with celibacy.
Although Courage, which, along with NARTH, Livingston enthusiastically promotes in his November 8 commentary, acknowledges that the “inclination of homosexual attractions” is “psychological understandable,” such attractions are nevertheless considered “objectively disordered” – a view promulgated by the hierarchical church. Courage often substitutes the words “homosexuality” and “gay” with the NARTH-coined phrase, “same-sex attraction disorder” – a term unrecognized by any professional health association. Following NARTH’s lead, Courage likens homosexuality to alcoholism, and conducts its “support group” using the 12-Step format developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Some members of Courage even consider their “disorder” to be curable, and explain its origin using debunked theories of dominant mothers, distant fathers and abusive family relations.
Livingston’s commentary in The Catholic Spirit is clear evidence that the quackery of NARTH is actively endorsed and encouraged by some within the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
2. John C. Gonsiorek, PhD, is a fellow of American Psychological Association (APA) Division 9 (also called the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues), and Division 12 (the Society of Clinical Psychology).
John is also a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and a Past-President of APA Division 44 – also known as the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues. For 25 years, he had an independent practice of clinical and forensic psychology in Minneapolis.
John has published widely in the areas of professional misconduct, sexual orientation and identity, and professional ethics. For many years, he provided expert witness evaluation and testimony regarding impaired clergy and professionals, standards of care, and psychological damages. He has also provided training and consultation to a variety of religious denominations and organizations.
A consulting editor for Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, John is also the author of a number of publications, including: Breach of Trust: Sexual Exploitation by Health Care Professionals and Clergy, Homosexuality: Research Implications for Public Policy (with Weinrich); Male Sexual Abuse: A Trilogy of Intervention Strategies (with Bera and Letourneau), and Homosexuality and Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Handbook of Affirmative Models.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“Conversion Therapy” and the Pseudo-Science of NARTH
Former “Ex-Gay” Shares His Experience of NARTH
Far from “Innocuous”
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
What Scientists in the UK are Saying About Homosexuality