Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a controversial Therapy

New York Times/February 12, 2007
By Michael Luo

Corey Larsen spent years hiding the feelings that drew him to other men, at first refusing to acknowledge them and then praying daily for them to be taken away.

As a teenager in Clearfield, Utah, he tried to banish the thoughts. As he grew older, the attractions grew stronger, but so did his religious convictions as a Mormon.

The contradiction tormented him. After moving to Manhattan several years ago, he remained a respected young leader in his church ward. Behind closed doors, though, he sank into despair. “I was either going to stay in the church, in what I believe and what I love, or choose this different path that I felt was just knocking on my door,” he said.

Last May, Mr. Larsen, 28, began seeing a therapist in Jersey City, joining others across the country making similar attempts to eliminate their gay desires through therapy or religious ministries dedicated to that end. Most are caught in similarly anguishing crises of faith and identity, searching for a way out through a murky world of intense dispute and warring political agendas.

Efforts by religious conservatives to “treat” homosexuality received renewed attention last week with news that the Rev. Ted Haggard, an evangelical pastor dismissed from his Colorado megachurch in a gay-sex scandal, had undergone three weeks of intense therapy and then reportedly concluded that he was “completely heterosexual.”

Although the scientific community cannot say definitively what determines sexual orientation — whether it is nature or nurture — most mainstream mental health professionals dismiss attempts to eradicate homosexual desires or to change someone’s sexual orientation as quackery that is potentially harmful.

Gay rights advocates say the efforts only provide additional fodder for homophobia. Mental health experts say there is no proof that sexual reorientation therapy, as it is often called, works. Meanwhile, they argue, the damage it can inflict on self-esteem, triggering depression and even suicide, is well documented.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association. “This is like creationism. You create the impression to the public as if there was a debate in the profession, which there is not.”

Nevertheless, these efforts, commonly called the “ex-gay” movement, have become increasingly visible across the country, where the battle over gay marriage and sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have brought the divisive issue of homosexuality to the forefront in recent years.

The efforts to rein in homosexual desires run the gamut from those that take a completely secular counseling approach to others that are completely spiritual. Some proclaim complete change is available, while others focus simply on helping gays and lesbians live celibately. Men seem to predominate in them, but women also seek them out.

Despite the skepticism about whether ex-gay programs can work, there is no denying the struggle of those involved. Among them are evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Roman Catholics and others often driven by deeply held religious beliefs that run counter to societal voices that encourage them to embrace being gay. It is unclear how many people participate in these programs, but a leading Christian organization in the movement, Exodus International, estimated in 2003 it had 11,000 in its affiliated ministries.

Mr. Larsen, a soft-spoken middle-school teacher in the Bronx, grew up in a small town north of Salt Lake City. He tried to ignore his feelings for other boys back then, he said.

“I had a hard time even acknowledging it in my own mind, or in my prayers to God,” he said. “I would say, ‘Just help me with that thing.’ ”

Later, he dated women briefly but invariably broke up with them out of fear that they would learn the truth. He fell into a deep depression.

Early last year, he learned about a special weekend program in Pennsylvania run by a secular group called People Can Change. He signed up right away.

The weekend focused on addressing his feelings of inadequacy as a man, which Mr. Larsen now believes is what shapes his attractions to other men. But just meeting others like him, he said, was healing.

Afterward, he made an appointment with David A. Matheson, one of the organizers of the weekend and a state-licensed counselor in Jersey City who runs the Center for Gender Affirming Processes.

The center is one of several such organizations that dot even the greater New York area, where gay men and lesbians are more widely accepted than in many other sections of the country.

On Friday and Saturday evenings in Manhattan, as many as 30 men and women gather in the Midtown offices of another group, called LIFE — Living in Freedom Eternally — Ministry. An evangelical Christian organization that has been around for several decades, it combines counseling and emotional work with biblical teaching and prayer.

In Morristown, N.J., the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Morris County began running a Bible study program two years ago called Living Waters that is geared toward people wrestling with homosexuality and other forms of what evangelicals term “sexual brokenness.” The program, led by lay people and conducted on Friday nights, originated in California.

On Monday evenings on the West Side of Manhattan, about a dozen members of the nationwide Roman Catholic organization Courage go through a 12-step program that helps them try to live chastely.

For Jews, there is JONAH — Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality — based in Jersey City. It runs online and in-person support groups for “strugglers” and organizes special immersion weekends focused on family dynamics and emotional healing for people dealing with what they call “same-sex attraction.” They also hold a support group for parents of gay children.

Mr. Matheson, who holds a master’s in counseling and guidance from Brigham Young University, began full-time practice in New Jersey in 2004 and juggles an active roster of some 50 clients. He charges $240 for a 90-minute session.

Mr. Matheson trained under the psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a prominent secular organization in the ex-gay movement.

The emphasis in Mr. Matheson’s counseling is on helping men — all his clients are male — develop “gender wholeness” by addressing emotional issues and building healthy connections with other men. He said he believed that helped reduce homosexual desires.

“The therapy I do really just uses standard, normal therapeutic principles,” he said. “Cognitive therapy and emotion-based therapy, standard therapeutic approaches, with an emphasis on helping them feel more comfortable in their masculinity.”

Defenders of sexual reorientation programs point to a 2001 study by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, who interviewed 200 people who said they had successfully changed their orientation and concluded that many of their accounts seemed credible.

But after enduring an avalanche of criticism from peers who said he had given too much credence to the accounts of his subjects, many of whom were leaders of ex-gay ministries, Dr. Spitzer now says many advocates of sexual reorientation have misrepresented his views.

“Although I suspect change occurs, I suspect it’s very rare,” he said. “Is it 1 percent, 2 percent? I don’t think it’s 10 percent.”

Conversations with more than a dozen participants in programs in the New York area revealed a range of wrenching stories and outcomes. Some told of years of struggle with little to show. Others said their gay feelings had clearly diminished. Several insisted they had experienced a complete turn to heterosexuality.

But even Kevin Dickson, 37, who leads the Living Waters program at the Vineyard church in Morristown, said he was cautious about promoting change. “If someone says, ‘Go to this ministry and you’re going to come out straight,’ if you don’t, then how are you going to feel about yourself?” said Mr. Dickson, who was openly gay until three years ago and now lives celibately.

He says his attraction to men still exists, but is greatly diminished. “I’m resolved to the fact that’s always going to be a temptation, but who’s not tempted by something?” he said.

But leaders of LIFE Ministry boldly declare that complete “freedom” is available for anyone willing to put in the emotional and spiritual work.

Robert Schaeffer, 44, one of the group’s facilitators, is a former pastor who spent years secretly having sex with hundreds of men. After he discovered he was H.I.V.-positive, he divulged his secret to his Pennsylvania church and his denomination sent him to LIFE Ministry. He began dating a woman after two years of counseling and eventually married her. He now proclaims himself to be completely free of homosexual desires.

“This ministry pointed me toward the emotional roots of homosexual desire,” he said. “The ungodly reactions to pain in my early formative years are really what I had to look at to get free of this.”

But for every ostensible success story, there are many other stories of people who have concluded they were deluding themselves, including some who used to be among the movement’s most visible leaders.

Peterson Toscano, 41, spent years in ex-gay ministries, including LIFE, during the 1980s and 1990s and eventually got married, only to see his marriage fall apart after he was unable to keep his homosexual urges in check.

He finally decided: “If you keep trying this, you’re fooling no one.” Now openly gay, Mr. Toscano lives in Hartford, attends a gay-friendly Quaker meetinghouse and performs solo comedy sketches around the country, including one that pokes fun at his experiences in the ex-gay movement.

As for Mr. Larsen, he feels positive about his progress. He called his attraction to other men now more like merely “noticing” them, as opposed to “this super-strong urge.”

“It doesn’t take me into a bad place,” he said.

But, significantly, he no longer says that completely eliminating his attraction to men is his final goal. He has come to see his temptations as a trial and an opportunity for growth. He cited a verse from the Gospel of Matthew that urges followers of Jesus to take his yoke upon them and they will find the burden light.

For him, he said, the burden is beginning to lift.

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