The road not taken: gay conversion therapy won’t work, say juniors, New Yorker magazine writer

This morning junior Connor Martin chose to have eggs for breakfast.

He could have gone for the oatmeal, but he was just in an egg mood.

He also chose to wear his high-top Sperrys (they’re in right now) and his Brown University sweatshirt. He didn’t have to wear the sweatshirt, but he felt like it.

He decided to leave around 7 a.m. so he could squeeze in an early morning stop at Temple Coffee, and once he got there, he had to decide between a cappuccino and hot tea. He chose the latter—you can’t go wrong with peppermint.

But that morning, Martin did not choose to be gay. That wasn’t a choice—it was just how it was.

“I fought it,” Martin said.

“I am positive there is nothing that would make me straight.”

And while Martin is supported in this view by the vast majority of the LGBT community, there are some, namely religious, groups that disagree.

So when a bill was signed on Sept. 29 by Governor Jerry Brown that stated no mental health practitioner shall provide minors with therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, including efforts to “change behaviors or gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex,” Martin approved.

This therapy—known as “conversion” or “reparative” therapy—is based on the belief that sexual orientation can be changed, and that feelings of attraction for someone of the same sex are the result of childhood trauma.

A variety of techniques are used (including aversion training, persuasion and pornography) to convince gay teens and others that they can become straight, according to an article (“Gay ‘Conversion Therapy’ Ban Blocked by appeals Court,” Dec. 22) on the NBC News website.

After signing the bill, Brown issued a statement explaining the bill bans “nonscientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide.”

“These practices have no basis in science or medicine, and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery,” Brown said.

The law was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, but due to a legal challenge an injunction was issued on Dec. 4.

Since then, no actions have been taken to reach a conclusive decision.

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And while Martin feels a decision should be made as quickly as possible, Sacramento psychiatrist Cindy Arnett is unsure.

“There is the worry that every day kids are being put into treatment and people are being hurt, but this has been going on for a long time,” she said.

Arnett supports the bill, as, from a medical perspective, homosexuality is not considered a disorder.

Therefore, she said, it makes sense to limit the treatment of it because medical professionals are supposed to treat disorders.

“There’s really no good evidence that changing someone’s sexual orientation can be achieved through conversion therapy, and there is some evidence that (therapy) can be harmful,” Arnett said.

“But then the question of whether we are going to legislate everything out there that hurts people is raised.”

However, according to a New York Times article (“Clashing Rulings Complicate Path of Gay ‘Conversion Therapy’ Law,” Dec. 4), many former patients describe extreme distress and depression after undergoing conversion therapy, and LGBT groups like Human Rights Campaign say conversion therapies only give unwarranted credence to implying that homosexuality is a choice.

And, as Martin would say, it’s not.

“Anyone who thinks it’s a choice doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Junior Kerina Blue, a bisexual, agrees, saying one article she read related sexual orientation to hand preference.

“Teachers used to try to change their students into being right-handed by tying their left hand, just as a gay person can learn to live as a straight person,” she said.

“But does that really make a left-handed person a right-handed person? Does that make a gay person a straight person?”

“It’s an innate part of you,” Martin said.

He compared it to asking a straight man whether he could stop liking girls. Martin, unblinkingly, said they would say no.

“It’s the same with me,” he said.

“It’s just who I am.”

But writer Daniel Mendelsohn disagrees with the “innateness” of homosexuality Martin describes, saying the word “innate” suggests “something at the physical level (like hair color or height or other physical characteristics).”

Mendelsohn recently wrote an article (“The American Boy,” Jan. 7) in the New Yorker magazine about his correspondence with author Mary Renault—in these letters he expressed his sexual identity as a gay teenager before he told his parents.

But Mendelsohn does agree with Martin on whether homosexuality is  a choice.

“Of course homosexuality isn’t a choice, any more than heterosexuality is a choice: this is medieval thinking,” he said.

“As has been pretty clear since Dr. Freud, sexuality is a complicated psychological construct, deeply formed in the earliest years of life; it is, therefore, ‘hard-wired’ and unchangeable.”

Therefore, Mendelsohn disagrees with the idea of conversion therapy, describing it as “fatuous”—mainly because “it makes fatuous assumptions about the nature of sexuality.”

When Martin learned of all the controversy surrounding the bill, he was a little confused at first, and then he was just sad.

“It’s not even that the kids who are being taken to these therapies have parents and people around them who are upset with them because they’re gay—it’s because a lot of them are upset with themselves,” he said.

“If they were raised Christian, they were taught from when they were little that being gay is bad. And now they’re turning into that bad thing.”

Numerous calls to conversion therapists in both California and Colorado  were not returned.

Martin doesn’t believe conversion therapy should exist, pointing out the therapy does more harm than good.

Blue isn’t as adamant, so long as the person being treated is over 18 years old.

“At (a minor’s) age, it’s far less likely for it to be their choice rather than their parents’. It should be an adult person’s decision for themselves.”

But if sexual orientation can be such a concern for adults, what about the kids who are still discovering their own?

Blue remembers feeling “this way” as early as second grade.

“I already lived in a pretty different family—we’re very open minded,” she said.

“I didn’t see that there was anything different about me because I was around so many different types of people, and it took a few years and some uncomfortable conversations to realize, ‘hey, not everyone is like this.’”

The conversation that cleared things up for her was in fourth grade, when she was sitting next to a group of boys working on a project.

The boys were talking about how “gorgeous” one of the girls was, and Blue turned to them and spoke in agreement.

“They all looked at me and they were so confused,” she said. “No one said anything directly, but that’s when I realized I was different, and people were going to look at me funny for that.”

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Martin’s realization was not as obvious, or easy.

“In third grade, I would do valley-girl impressions of my sister and people would laugh,” he said.

“In fourth grade they stopped laughing.”

And that’s when the bullying began.

He was called “homo,” “queer,”  and “faggot,” and was associated with countless other stereotypes until ninth grade when the bullying, for the most part, ceased.

And even though the “gay-bullying” began in fourth grade, it wasn’t until late seventh grade Martin realized he was gay, or at least bi (he was hoping this was the case).

“In sixth grade I was really confused—people were calling me gay, but I didn’t think I was,” he said.

“Finally I realized, but I was fighting it. It’s not something you can really fight though; it’s just something you can deny.”

And after years of this denial, both Martin and Blue came out to their family and friends this year.

For both, it was a relief–and an emotional rush.

“Being closeted was exhausting—I was constantly on my guard, trying to seem as straight as possible,” Martin said.

“It was a lie, too; I felt like I was in a box, screaming to get out.”

Blue shared his sentiment, adding, “no one should ever, ever, be forced to live the way they don’t want to, as long as they do no harm.”

It’s this—being forced to live a certain way—that Blue believes is the worst part of conversion therapy, for without it, no gay person, regardless of their age, would be exposed to it if they didn’t want to.

And Martin agrees, saying conversion therapy is not only wrong, but would never work.

“If you could change, it would be so different,” he said.

“But if I got a wish, and I could change if I wanted, I don’t know what I would do—I would be abandoning everyone else that’s experiencing the same trouble I had.”

But Mendelsohn takes a more extreme view on this.

“I can’t imagine why one would want to ‘convert,’ even if it were possible–it’s positively medieval to want to do so,” he said.

“Sexuality isn’t like interior decor, something you can decide to ‘redo’ from time to time.  People who are unhappy being gay need therapy to be happier gay people—they do not need to stop being gay.”

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