Letter Exchange

Menstuff® has information on countering for ex-gay claims.


An exchange with the editor of Psychology Today regarding their ad policy for “ex-gay” advocates
Exchange with my evangelical cousin

An exchange with the editor of Psychology Today regarding their ad policy for “ex-gay” advocates

This page, countering ex-gay claims, includes an exchange with the editor of Psychology Today and Rik Isensee regarding their ad policy for “ex-gay” advocates, plus a letter to Rik's evangelical cousin.

A helpful resource for those who would like to learn more about this issue: Sexual Conversion Therapy, edited by Ariel Shidlo, Michael Schroeder, and Jack Drescher (Haworth Medical Press, 2002) is a collection of essays and studies that provide an indepth consideration of ethical, clinical, and research perspectives on ex-gay claims, and attempts to change sexual orientation.

For a more humorous spin on ex-gay claims, and attempts to change gays to heterosexuality, check out my novel: The God Squad (a spoof on the ex-gay movement). Click on the cover for a link to an excerpt!

Psychology Today exchange:

Psychology Today published an ad (December, 2002) for a book called A Parents’ Guide to Preventing Homosexuality by Joseph and Linda Ames Nicolosi, who are advocates of “reparative” (or conversion) therapy to cure gays of homosexuality, and who make many ex-gay claims for their practice.

I wrote a letter to the editor to question their policy of accepting ads supporting ex-gay claims, and advocating “reparative” therapy, and the editor wrote me back. I’ve included my initial letter, followed by a summary of his reply, and my response to his defense of ex-gay claims.

Dear Editor:

I find it very disturbing that Psychology Today would take an ad for A Parents’ Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, by Joseph and Linda Ames Nicolosi, who claim that homosexuality can be “cured.”

There is no scientific evidence that homosexuality can be prevented or “cured.” I am a licensed clinical social worker, and have seen the harm done gay clients who attempted to deny their sexual orientation through ex-gay claims, including this type of “conversion” or “reparative” therapy.

Yes, there are some gay people who feel bad about their sexual orientation, but that’s because of the homophobia of many religions and the harmful practices of therapists such as Nicolosi. Holding out hope for a false “cure” and encouraging clients to pretend they are not really gay only aggravates and extends their suffering, often leading to self-hatred, substance abuse, and even suicide.

Psychology Today, as a journal providing psychological insights for a popular audience, has a responsibility not to mislead readers about such a harmful treatment, which has been discredited by all the mental health professions, plus the American Medical Association.

I hope you will review and alter PT’s policy re: the acceptance of ads encouraging this outmoded and harmful form of treatment.


Rik Isensee, LCSW

Robert Epstein, editor of Psychology Today (who declined to have his reply quoted verbatim), responded with the following points: as a commercial publication rather than an academic journal, Psychology Today maintains a separation between its editorial and advertising departments, therefore they don’t necessarily agree with the ex-gay claims of their advertisers.

He quoted the American Psychology Association’s 1997 resolution on sexual orientation, which states that we are obligated to “respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from our own”–even if that includes unsubstantiated ex-gay claims.

Epstein also cited a review of outcome studies and other ex-gay claims that challenges the view that reparative therapy is not effective. Finally, he wondered if some advocates of gay rights are unwilling to respect any opinions (including ex-gay claims) that differ from their own.

Following is my reply:

Dear Dr. Epstein:

Thanks for your note in response to my concerns about your ad for Nicolosi’s book. I appreciate hearing back from you, and I’m glad you’re considering a piece on reparative therapy.

It seems that you were taken aback by the reactions you’ve received on this matter. You have to realize this isn’t an idle intellectual debate for gay people—you might want to take a look at the film, One Nation Under God, which documents the abusive history of reparative therapy, in case you’re not familiar with this story.

I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim you don’t necessarily agree with your advertisers. Even if advertising is a separate department, you must have some guidelines and standards for accepting appropriate ads. If Scientific American, for example, took an ad for a book promoting creationism through “intelligent design,” I’m sure they’d get a flood of letters from beleaguered biology teachers.

Is there room for reasonable people to disagree? Perhaps on the fluidity of sexual expression over time, but not about the basic question of whether homosexuality is an illness, that needs “prevention” or a “cure.”

Yes, I’m familiar with Throckmorton’s review, whose conclusions were contradicted by another study in the same issue of the journal you cited: “The results indicated that a majority failed to change sexual orientation, and many reported that they associated harm with conversion interventions. A minority reported feeling helped, although not necessarily with their original goal of changing sexual orientation.” (See “Changing Sexual Orientation: A Consumers’ Report,” by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, June, 2002.)

Throckmorton is a professor and counselor at an evangelical Christian school called Grove City College. He also offered a slide presentation at the American Psychiatric Association in 2001 (“Ethical Issues in Attempts to Ban Reorientation Therapies”), in which he states, “For some, it is easier, and less emotionally disruptive, to contemplate changing sexual orientation than to disengage from a religious way of life that is seen as completely central to the individual’s sense of self and purpose.”

I think it’s fine to offer treatment for a conflict between religious beliefs and sexual orientation. We can help clients sort through their beliefs, and empower them to decide what makes sense in their own lives. “Disengagement from a religious way of life” and “changing sexual orientation” are not the only options for resolving this dilemma. If they are also exposed to the fact that not all religions believe homosexual relationships are sinful, they may even be able to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sexual orientation—a far less drastic (and potentially more integrated) approach than the false dichotomy offered by ex-gay proponents.

Throckmorton apparently sees celibacy as a reasonable alternative to gay sexuality: “Those who were highly successful in attempting change of behavior and maintaining celibacy reported positive mental health on a variety of measures of happiness, loneliness, self-acceptance, and depression.” In the same presentation, Throckmorton also acknowledged “In another study by the same team comparing ‘ex-gays’ and LGB persons, ‘ex-gays’ reported positive mental health in their identity synthesis, with LGB persons reporting greater happiness, self-acceptance, and less loneliness and paranoia.” (emphasis added)

If religious leaders insist their followers must avoid same-sex contact because it’s sinful, that’s one thing; gay people can then decide whether that makes sense to them (although I would still question whether it’s all that healthy to suppress their true feelings for the sake of an ancient tribal taboo). But ex-gay treatment providers insist that same-sex contact is a mental illness they refer to with the condescending acronym of “SAD” (Same-Sex Attraction Disorder), and claim reparative therapy can help gays overcome their homosexual feelings and become “straight.”

It may be that some religiously-motivated gays see a celibate lifestyle as their only option, while some who are actually bisexual may even get married. But let’s look at the heart of the matter: while some “ex-gays” may be “ex-gay” in the sense that they are avoiding gay sex, very few (if any) are ever “ex-gay” in the sense of no longer experiencing same-sex desires. This continuing struggle is commonly acknowledged in much of the ex-gay literature, and in interviews with both ex-gays and their counselors.

Since homosexual attraction is not a mental disorder, I believe it is misleading, potentially damaging, and unethical to offer a fundamental shift in sexual orientation as a goal of psychotherapy.

I’m aware of your stewardship of Psychology Today, and your concern that prior to your tenure “Almost anything could get in,” and “It lost respect among therapists, scientists and professionals.” (From your interview with Biotech, June 29, 2001.)

Psychology Today could better fulfill its mission as a reputable resource by enforcing responsible standards in your advertising, as well as in feature articles.


Rik Isensee, LCSW

Exchange with my evangelical cousin:

I have seen many clients in therapy who grew up in religious families that rejected them because of their sexual orientation. I’ve also seen some clients who felt conflicted about being gay because of their religious background.

So I thought I’d offer these thoughts as a way to help religious gays feel more confident about their own path, even if they’re unable to influence their family’s opinions.

Last winter, my cousin sent me a Christmas letter describing his involvement with the Promise Keepers (a “Biblically-based” men’s organization that encourages men to reclaim their role as head of the family). This movement was started by Coach Bill McCartney, who also spear-headed the Amendment 2 initiative in Colorado that would have denied civil rights to gay people. (Amendment 2 was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.)

My cousin is proud that the Promise Keepers welcome different races and denominations. When I pointed out that gay Christians are not part of their “inclusiveness,” he said gays would be welcome (along with thieves, adulterers, and other sinners), as long as they were willing to repent of their homosexuality.

In response, I sent him a review of my novel, The God Squad, a spoof on the ex-gay movement. (See link.) I also sent him a gay-affirmative analysis of the Biblical passages that are frequently cited to condemn homosexuality.

He wrote back with an article countering these interpretations, and I replied with the following letter. Given the differences between our world-views, it’s probably unrealistic to think this perspective will influence his opinion. For him, the Bible is the final authority, so historical, cultural, and psychological understandings of sexual orientation and scripture must be rejected if they appear to contradict his literal reading of “God’s word.”

Nonetheless, I thought I would post this letter in the hope that it might help gay people who are trying to reconcile their sexual orientation with their own religious beliefs.

Hope this is helpful, and I welcome your feedback!

Dear E—,

Thanks for your reply and for the article in response to the “gay-friendly” interpretations I sent you. Not being a biblical scholar, I won’t try to argue these specific points. What I find intriguing is how we arrived at such contrasting views of spirituality.

We grew up in the same church, but we’ve taken very different paths! You got involved in Youth for Christ, while I went to church camps and ecumenical meetings, visited Jewish and Buddhist Temples, talked with Mormon and Catholic friends, and learned how the spiritual impulse expresses itself in many forms through different cultures.

I’m writing this letter from a Zen monastery/resort (you know you’re in California when an austere monastery is also a lovely resort!). Last night I heard a refrain reminiscent of Christian salvation—one of the Buddhist chants included a Boddhisatva vow to save everyone: “Beings are numberless—I vow to save them.”

Even at our gay summer camps, we have discussions fairly similar to yours: we also talk about what it means to nurture our relationships with a sense of integrity, commitment, and love. (I suspect, however, that our entertainment is a bit more risqué than the Promise Keepers!)

Yes, it appears that both of us have some professional investment in our respective “lifestyles”—but I’m not trying to “recruit” anyone. If a client came to me with a religious conflict about his homosexuality, I would encourage him to become as informed as possible about various ways of understanding scripture, to speak with other gay Christians, and to make up his own mind. In the end, if he decided it was better to be celibate than to act on his orientation, I might question his choice, but I would wish him well. And I would be available if he needed to re-consider his position later on.

If your group simply believed homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so, I would still disagree with you. I think other aspects of the New Testament, especially the love and compassion of Jesus, far outweigh these references. Nonetheless, you have the right to define your own religious beliefs.

However, ex-gay treatment programs do not stop there. They claim they can “cure” homosexuality through “reparative therapy,” which is based on outmoded treatments and discredited theories about the origins of homosexuality. This is not just my opinion—it’s the assessment of all the mental health professions: psychiatry, psychology, clinical social work, marriage and family therapy—plus the American Medical Association.

I was invited to speak by the congregation of Freedom in Christ Evangelical Church about the detrimental effects of reparative therapy. Many of their own parishioners had been through these programs, grasping on to the false promise of a “cure” that often led to a cycle of shame, repentance, and self-blame. Some fell into a deep, suicidal despair, believing God had abandoned them: even after years of prayer and earnest devotion, they still felt love and attraction toward people of the same sex.

One church member named John read a letter from a close friend who committed suicide because he believed he would be better off dead than living the “sinful” life of a homosexual. John himself had left his husband of fifteen years at the insistence of his minister. He now regards this as the biggest mistake of his life. After many years of struggle, John finally quit his ex-gay program because he came to believe that God loves him exactly as he is, and cherishes his relationships.

Reparative therapy is unethical because it holds out the promise of a “cure” for a mental disorder that does not exist. Ex-gay ministries often use untrained, unlicensed counselors who have little or no experience dealing with serious anxiety or depressive disorders. I regard this “treatment” as malpractice, and would encourage any client victimized by these programs to file a complaint with the licensing board, and even sue for damages.

You questioned my depiction of a minister sexually exploiting his ex-gay recruits. No, I don’t assume most ex-gay leaders set out to seduce young gays. My novel is a satire, with some exaggeration for comic effect, yet with a kernel of truth—many young people in these programs have been molested by counselors who are confused and conflicted about their own “recovery,” which leads them to act out their repressed desires by exploiting others.

You say homosexuality is “just a feeling, and feelings aren’t reliable.” The “feeling” you refer to so dismissively is love. (I doubt you’d question the reliability of your feelings for your wife!) You compare gayness with lying, stealing, and adultery, yet these actions harm others, whereas same-sex love harms no one. You don’t seem to realize the extent to which sexual orientation—whether gay or straight—is an intrinsic part of one’s sense of self. You assume that anyone who turns his life over to Jesus will be able to resist acting on his orientation because “they’re only feelings,” ignoring the fact that gay relationships can be just as heart-felt, committed, and profound as any heterosexual marriage.

I thought it was a hopeful sign that you believe Jesus came “not to condemn…He came to offer an escape from the rules and the law and the guilt.” Sounds like “good news” to me! You’re acknowledging the distinction between the rigid rules of the Pharisees and “a new relationship with God through Christ.”

By accepting this “new Covenant with God,” you no longer abide by many other prohibitions in Leviticus, whether it’s eating lobster, trimming your beard, or wearing polyester blends. Even if you construe some of Paul’s comments to be anti-gay, he also told slaves to obey their masters and would not permit women to teach. No one pays attention to these opinions any more, so why attach such importance to archaic taboos against homosexuality?

I believe it’s a mistake to take the Bible literally, since all religious texts are self-referential, with no outward validation of their claims or precepts, other than our own experience. Far from being “without error,” many of these ancient texts contradict what we know about the natural world, such as the age of the earth, or how life evolved. An amusing example from Leviticus: bats are a type of “bird” you’re not supposed to eat!

I remember you once said, “Jesus was either telling the Truth, or he was the world’s greatest liar.” Despite the many inaccuracies and contradictions found in the Bible and other sacred texts, I don’t see religious stories in terms of “truth” or “lies.” I understand the legends and myths from various spiritual traditions as metaphorical symbols: God, Atman, Allah, or Buddha can be understood as our higher Self, with Christ as a symbol of atonement—healing a sense of alienation from our own true nature.

We apparently represent examples of two different approaches to spirituality—which are often characterized as orthodox and mystical (or in theological terms, exoteric and esoteric)—the former representing religions based on a formal creed, scripture, or dogma; while the latter tends to be more oriented toward an inner realization of our “divine” spirit.

The spiritual impulse in many cultures often reflects a desire for meaning. Spirituality can contribute to social cohesion and provide a guide to ethics and morality. It can also engender a direct experience of transcendence, and stimulate a sense of the sacred.

Spiritual traditions can nurture our growth insofar as they resonate with humane values. At their best, they offer inspiring examples of how to live a good life, with honor, integrity, and loving kindness. They can motivate us to rise above our own selfish desires and take others’ needs into consideration. But when religious rules are psychologically naïve and unrealistic, they can become harsh, condemning, and even cruel. This has led to self-righteous culture wars, gay-bashing, discrimination, and the denial of civil rights to gay people: in jobs, housing, military service, inheritance, medical decisions, adoption, and the right to marry.

I would describe “salvation” (reconciliation, or enlightenment) not as a matter of faith, but as an active participation in one’s life and mind and emotional well-being. A fascinating quote along these lines comes from the Gospel of St. Thomas (one of the Gnostic gospels that never made it into the Bible): Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” An excellent caution against the dangers of repression!

In your letter you said, “I can’t claim to understand the feelings you have.” However, if you and the groups you’re involved with are going to take such a strong stand on an issue that you admittedly know little about, you need to be aware of real-world consequences. Religious right groups disclaim any responsibility for anti-gay violence (like the murder of Matthew Shepard), yet they often oppose the gay-straight discussion groups and anti-harassment initiatives that could help reduce attacks against people perceived as gay.

I encourage you to meet with some gay Christians who have been through ex-gay therapy to understand how these programs have brought real harm to many people’s lives. You may assume they just didn’t pray hard enough or are simply indulging their “feelings,” but I suspect you have much more in common with gay Christians than you ever imagined.

Let me know your thoughts—wishing you well on your own spiritual journey! Give my love to N—

Your cuz,


© 2008, Rik Isensee

Source:  Used with permission. www.gaytherapist.com/countering-ex-gay-claims

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