Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A Love There Is No Cure For

Benjamin Disraeli once supposedly scoffed that "There are lies, damned lies and statistics", and like Britain's erstwhile Prime Minister I tend to take survey outcomes and the like with a large pinch of salt. I couldn't however ignore recent reports of a study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, which according to one headline had found that 'One in six psychiatrists has tried to 'turn gays straight''.

It was reported that researchers had canvassed over 1300 mental health professionals and found that 17% (or one in six) had at some time in their career 'assisted at least one client/patient to reduce or change his or her homosexual or lesbian feelings'. In layman's terms, the statistics suggested that a substantial minority of psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners were willing to try to 'cure' homosexuality. Incredulous, I resolved to discover more and to inquire as to why, in 21
st century Britain, anyone would want to be 'cured' of their sexuality.

The first stage was to read the report to see if the newspapers had sensationalised or manipulated its findings at all. They hadn't – the 1 in 6 figure was clearly explained in (as my boyfriend would put it) language so simple even I could understand it – although the blanket use of the term 'psychiatrists' to cover a group which also included psychotherapists and counsellors was slightly misleading. If anything I felt that some of the articles I'd read had actually missed some of the report's more disturbing findings. For example, 72% of all respondents who had 'treated' a patient's homosexuality
still believed that such treatment should be available. Also, while the survey covered a period of four decades from 1963-2003, 79% of all the cases fell in the last ten years; even allowing for the proportionally fewer respondents who would have been practising in the earlier decades this nonetheless pointed to there having been no decline in the number of patients seeking to be 'cured' of homosexuality from the years pre-legalisation and in times far more intolerant than our own.

What really alarmed me were some of the verbatim comments from practitioners invited to justify why they believed it was acceptable to attempt to 'reduce or redirect' someone's attraction to the same sex. One spoke with apparent pride of a man he "helped to become heterosexual" because the patient "came from a working class background where it was completely unacceptable to deviate from the norm". Another alluded to similar considerations, saying that a patient was afraid of the reaction of "the local community – which outside London is still very homophobic", placing the capital on a pedestal which even its most satisfied gay residents would consider lofty.

There were several variations on the theme of 'the client knows best', with respondents stating, in essence, that if a patient wanted to be 'cured', then they were duty-bound to attempt to do so. Finally, the most distasteful comment – fortunately, as the report observed, one of only 'very few' that were discernibly homophobic – stated that "The physical act for male homosexuals is physically damaging and is the main reason in this country for AIDS/HIV. It is also perverse…" prompting me to wonder if the psychotherapist quoted was more part of the problem than the 'solution'. I could only conclude that he must be from 'outside London'.

So much for the professionals; who, I wanted to know, are the patients? The report offered a breakdown of reasons for patients seeking help, with by far the most common reason being 'confusion about sexual orientation' at 57%. This greatly outweighed the next most common reasons, 'social pressures including the family' at 14% and 'mental health difficulties' at 11%; 'religious beliefs' represented a surprisingly low (I thought) 7%. Other than this there was little specific information about why, today, anyone could be so distressed by their homosexuality that they would want to be cured of it, so I decided to undertake some research of my own.

First off I spoke to Jack Jones, agony uncle for GT (Gay Times) magazine, to find out whether he'd come across anyone seeking to be 'cured'. He certainly had, the most recent being in the last couple of months. What, I asked, were the sorts of reasons correspondents offered for wanting to become straight? Predominantly, it would seem, religion – in some cases their own, in others that of their parents – but also a general difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality, manifesting itself as a desire to avoid the problem in hand by 'turning straight'.

"Some of the guys who write to me are very vulnerable and confused," Jack told me; "they want or rather need explanations for
why they're gay, and because this isn't something that's easily rationalised, they instead seek other ways of making the situation 'better'." In Jack's most recent case, a young guy of about 20 wrote asking whether he should accept the 'cure' being offered by his parents' church, despite the fact that his deeply religious parents had actually shown some degree of acceptance when he had bravely come out to them. Jack's advice to this correspondent was the same as he gives to anyone who writes to him about a 'cure': "I sympathise with the confusion they're feeling but emphasise that sexuality isn't something that needs to be cured, and instead advise them to get help with accepting it." Common sense, you would think, but evidently not for the one in six headline-making professionals in the survey.

I still couldn't quite get my head around why someone would want to be cured of their sexuality rather than accepting it. From a personal point of view, I know that I was very fortunate growing up in that I never, ever had any problem accepting that I was gay. Try as I might to empathise, I found it impossible to imagine a situation so bad that it would make me want to not be gay, or that could justify a professional in trying to 'cure' me. So, knowing that among my myriad happily-gay friends there had to be some different experiences, I asked about forty people the same question:

Thinking back through your lifetime, as opposed to how you feel now, has there ever been a point where had it been available, you would have accepted treatment to 'cure' you of being gay?

The responses I received were fascinating for their variety and candour. Fairly predictably, most answered unequivocally 'Never', with a few saying that while there'd been times where they had thought life would be easier if they weren't gay, they'd never actually wanted to turn straight. Indeed, several respondents said that their sexuality was something they drew strength from, with one describing his being gay as "the one constant that has never left me" and another saying that "I always revelled in it." Others were less sure, with about 15% being able to identify a time (all while in their teens and still coming to terms with being gay) when they were sufficiently distressed that they would have accepted a cure, but tellingly most of these respondents stressed that it wouldn't have been their sexuality they wanted a cure for, it not being clear to them what their sexuality
was yet, but the terrible anxiety and stress they were suffering from. All of these, natural enough to say, are now happy, fully-functioning homos with no lasting signs of damage.

The answers which most interested me were those that said not only "Yes", they would have accepted treatment, but also that this was as an adult, already identifying as gay and therefore putting them in the same category as the patients in the survey. One, Adam*, said that he happily identified as bisexual for many years, making the mental distinction that men were purely for sex and that he would eventually settle down with a woman and have a family. When he realised however that he was gay and not bi, he was so upset at the prospect of never having a family that he would have considered a cure had it been offered. In some cases it would appear that it
is on offer: the report found a number of professionals considered bisexuality "was not a stable category of sexual orientation" and would be willing to try to realign a patient's feelings – towards being heterosexual, of course. Other respondents, living as they were then in communities where they would not have felt safe had it been known that they were gay, described feelings of isolation and indeed of endangerment so severe that they would have been open to having their sexuality 'cured'.

Now, with hindsight, all agree that their sexuality wasn't the problem and that by moving away they were able to accept themselves as gay, as now have the families and communities which they felt compelled to leave. What if they hadn't had social mobility and had found themselves in the hands of one of the psychiatrists who considered acceptance by a homophobic community as being of greater worth than acceptance of oneself as gay? They'd be, most likely, in the same situation as the patient quoted in the
Independent who, as well as admitting frankly that the treatment he underwent had plainly failed to suppress his attraction to men, said that, "The very structure of my being [was] torn apart in the name of science."

One good news story emerged from my survey which serves to prove that mental health professionals can – and do – play a positive role in the lives of gay people today. In her twenties, Jenny* sought counselling because as she says, "I didn't want to be different from all my friends or to disappoint my family; in my vulnerable state I would have jumped at the chance to make myself straight." Fortunately, that chance didn't arise; instead, Jenny saw a (coincidentally) lesbian counsellor who rather than take her down the route of 'redirecting' her feelings, "thankfully understood the whole process [of coming out]" and helped her towards becoming the confident, loved and loving lesbian she is today.

Dominic Davies, founder of specialist independent therapy organisation Pink Therapy, explained just how important this understanding of a gay person's thought processes is: "Straight therapists can find it hard to empathise with a LGBT patient and not appreciate the social context they're coming from and how they're living their life. They're more likely to collude with straight, patriarchal values of what's 'normal' rather than understanding what is possible; for example, that it's possible to be queer and have a family, or to identify positively as being bi." Pink Therapy have over 300 'queer-friendly' therapists on their books, all able and willing to help anyone experiencing confusion over their sexual identity.

The time people devoted to answering my 'survey' and the openness with which they did so showed just how emotive the very idea of anyone trying to 'cure' us of being gay is. Many were furious that the question should even be being asked in 2009, "morally repugnant" being one of the more printable comments. Overwhelmingly though, the message to come out of my research - and the message I would like to send to all mental health professionals, whatever their current views on 'treating' gay patients are – was that the best and surely
only 'treatment' to offer is to help individuals to accept themselves as they are and to allow them to see that they can lead a fulfilled and happy life being gay.

I couldn't hope to summarise this better than my dear pal Robin; would he ever want to be cured of his sexuality? "NO NEVER. And you can publish my answer in NEON LIGHTS in the national press with my name and photo if you like. Purely and simply I love men, and I love being gay. I mean can you imagine life not being gay? How dull." Robin – and all the proud, happy, incurable queers who I spoke to – I salute you.

*Some names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of respondents.

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