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In Encino, NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, refers clients to as many as 30 local therapists who practice what they call gay "reparative" therapy. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who heads NARTH, is the leading proponent of a "scientific" basis for ex-gay therapy.
Nicolosi took his doctorate in 1977 from the California Professional School of Psychology. Curiously, Nicolosi "doesn't remember" where the school was located when he attended classes. (A spokeswoman said the location was a storefront on the outskirts of MacArthur Park. The school now occupies four campuses throughout California, including one in Alhambra, and its mission statement advocates "combating discrimination in all its forms, especially . . . heterosexism.") Nicolosi also runs a Catholic counseling center, but says his reparative therapy is secular.
"It would be easy to dismiss our therapy as religiously motivated, but it's not. It's science," he says.
Nicolosi claims a third of his clients are "cured," a third show "significant improvement," and a third don't change. "Their homosexuality is still there, but it is really no problem," Nicolosi says. He also claims the scientific literature supports him, although an APA study found the evidence that reparative therapy succeeds "less than compelling."
Nicolosi client Mark, 31, says his therapy had nothing to do with Christianity. The initial focus of his therapy was his "dysfunctional" relationship with his "big-time businessman" father.
"He never hugged me. He worked until 9 every night and played golf every Saturday," says Mark, a sales associate at a video store. His next step toward heterosexuality was to "work the program" by returning to full-time work, taking up painting and making straight male friends. And where to find these new friends? At Nicolosi's reparative men's groups.
"I call them nongay homosexuals," Mark says. "I've made four significant male friendships I know I will have for the rest of my life." Heterosexuality will come in its own time, Mark believes. "I'm not going to lie and say I have two girlfriends, but when I see a beautiful woman getting in her car now, I appreciate her."
Why do gay people want to convert? For many leaders, that's a stupid question with easy answers: oppression, discrimination, religious and family pressure, internalized homophobia. Mark says he was turned off by the gay-bar scene. For many evangelicals, particularly from rural states, an ex-gay group is the first place they can admit their sexuality to other Christians without being prayed over or exorcised.
"I would have jumped on this 35 years ago," says the Reverend Mel White, a former speechwriter for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who came out of the closet after many years. His book Stranger at the Gate details his experiences. "I hardly know a gay or lesbian person who hasn't been affected by the idea they could be cured."
But if recruiting is not a problem, backsliding is. The ex-gay dropout rate is so high, "ex-ex-gays" now have their own books and Web sites, which describe the movement as a horror show of coercion, guilt and despair.
One Web posting tells the story of an ex-ex-gay man whose therapist opened his first session by setting an hourglass on her desk. "The grains of sand represent how many people are dying and going to hell while we are here talking," she said. In another posting, ex-ex-gayer Tom Ottosen says Love in Action executive director John Smid suggested that he commit suicide rather than return to the "gay lifestyle." (Smid, reached by phone, says he might have mentioned the high risk of death by AIDS or stress in the gay "lifestyle," but never suicide.)
Perhaps the most notorious ex-gay defectors were Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, who helped found Exodus in 1976. While stumping for the group, they fell in love. Crunch time came when they found themselves booked into a hotel room with only one bed. The couple married in 1982; Cooper died of AIDS nine years later. Their story was told in a 1993 documentary on PBS.
Bussee says that in all his years inside the movement, he never met a single homosexual who was truly converted to heterosexuality.
"If you got them away from the Christian limelight," he says, "and asked them, 'Honestly now, are you saying that you are no longer homosexual and you are now heterosexually oriented?' not one person said, 'Yes, I am actually now heterosexual.'"
Ex-gay poster couple John and Anne Paulk take exception to that kind of talk. John (his drag name was Candi), who recently took a job with James Dobson's Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, got a lot of press after the ad campaign broke. He says he was very annoyed with questions raised about his wife's lesbianism, which apparently consisted of one post-collegiate affair.