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Get it Out

Groups like Exodus International say they can 'save' people from homosexuality, but at what mental cost? SPM talks with Valley residents who have undergone reparative therapy.

 by Grayson Steinberg  published on Thursday, October 27, 2005



Jacie* lounges comfortably on a cream-colored leather chair just weeks before she will have the sexual reassignment surgery necessary for her to become a woman.

The political science and history sophomore pushes back her dark, red-highlighted hair as she recalls how a fundamentalist Christian counselor caused her a painful bout of depression and self-doubt over her status as a male-to-female transsexual.

"Doctors aren't supposed to fuck with your head and play games," Jacie says. "That's nowhere in the Hippocratic oath."

Her feminine voice rises in volume as she describes the mental scars the therapy left behind.

Jacie was sent to the counselor after several secular therapists diagnosed her as a transsexual. Biologically, Jacie was born as a man, but psychologically considers herself a straight woman. She has endured a long process to become female, including: taking estrogen, regularly consulting psychologists on her mental state and ultimately, going under the knife for surgery that includes a trachea shave, the reduction of the Adam's apple, and an orchiectomy, or removal of the testicles

But her parents refused to accept her chosen gender identity. Jacie says the Christian counselor quoted Bible passages to convince her she was gay because she dated and slept with other men. Jacie explained her identity was female, but the counselor argued as long as she was biologically male, she was a homosexual who was going to hell.

Jacie says the counselor twisted her words to suit his own agenda, accusing her of being a transvestite when she said was sexually aroused after hugging an attractive guy while dressed as a woman.

"It [was] really like being cross-examined by a lawyer," she says.

The therapist also tried to blame her parents for her gender orientation, Jacie adds, saying her father neglected her by not being home enough and her mother pampered her by not allowing her to play football or ride roller coasters. Eventually, the man told her parents Jacie refused to accept the possibility of becoming heterosexual and could not be cured until she admitted she was gay.
"He also made it a lot harder for my parents to accept me, because he didn't tell them I was transsexual," Jacie says.

Psychological damage

Jacie's counselor employed a form of treatment known as reparative therapy, which seeks to change one's sexual orientation.

Dr. Jack Drescher, the chair of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues, says reparative therapy sets the stage for "patient blaming" when treatment fails, especially when subjects hail from deeply religious backgrounds. Therapists using this treatment tell patients their ability to change their sexual orientation depends greatly on the power of faith. Those who don't become heterosexual, which Drescher says represents the majority, often end up questioning whether their conviction was compelling enough.

Patients can become depressed, anxious, even suicidal, he adds. They find their ability to form relationships with other gay people is seriously restricted. Patients refuse to accept their own homosexuality and are paralyzed by a barrage of homosexual stereotypes and ingrained feelings of prejudice against gay people.

While some positive consequences of therapy are reported anecdotally for certain young gay men and women who see reparative therapy as an escape from the gay bar scene, Drescher says, there is little concrete research on the subject.

One report, "Can Sexual Orientation Change?" conducted in 2003 by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, who led the campaign to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, found 200 individuals who participated in forms of reparative therapy reported substantial shifts toward heterosexuality in 10 different measures, including attraction to members of the opposite sex and pleasure from heterosexual sex.

Spitzer says he sought to determine whether people changed their sexual orientation at all, not how often this occurred. But since it was so difficult just to find 200 people who had changed for the study, the likelihood of altering sexual orientation is probably rare, he says.

"It's hard to change anything that's basic to a person's personality," Spitzer adds.

100 percent different

The last decade has shown Joe Schneider, a 35-year-old elementary school teacher in Goodyear, that change is possible. For many years, he says he was gay, but is now happily married and heterosexual.

"I'm a 100 percent different person today," he says.

After having casual gay sex, using cocaine and methamphetamines, and regularly hanging out in gay bars all through college, he says he could no longer reconcile his behavior with his Christian beliefs, which told him homosexuality was wrong.

Schneider broke all connections to the gay scene but still found himself depressed, inadequate and unable to befriend any straight men.

Schneider, a born-again Christian, found solace in the form of a local support group run by Exodus International, a non-profit Christian organization offering "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ," according to its Web site.

Exodus taught him that all men are created heterosexual, but certain experiences, such as sexual abuse, or as it was in his case, a neglectful father, make it difficult for men to form healthy relationships with other males, he says. Exodus teaches that gay men view sex as a way of finding the love and acceptance they craved from their fathers but never received as young children.

In his support group, Schneider says he discussed his low self-esteem and desire for affirmation with about 20 other men. They talked about their own personal struggles to eliminate homosexual thoughts and feelings, interrupted by incidents like watching gay pornography or cruising at a gay bar. They bowled together and went to the movies together, and Schneider was also encouraged to form friendships with men in Bible study groups at other churches.

Comparing his struggle to dealing with an addictive disorder like alcoholism, Schneider says it took about three or four years to transform his identity. At one point, he relapsed, he says, having sex and moving in with another member of the group.

"I could no longer be part of the group because I was making no effort to change," he says.

But Schneider says he felt guilty about becoming sexually intimate with another man and eventually returned to the group. He says he eradicated all sexual attraction to other males and later began dating women, one of whom became his wife.

He has also begun operating a non-profit ministry based on what he learned from Exodus, offering advice to those battling the contradiction between homosexual feelings and religious beliefs.

"I don't want anyone to have to go through the pain I went through," he says.

Scott Davis, director of Exodus Youth, says his organization provides support for anyone yearning to escape from the gay lifestyle. Exodus tries to empower young people through faith, but they don't always succeed. They may lack sufficiently strong faith, lack support from friends and family or be poorly motivated, Davis says.

But he adds, "We don't believe there's anyone who inherently can't change."

Davis says some people report continued depression and anxiety after therapy, but the numbers aren't any worse than those any other psychological organization might report. He does not provide any statistics to support this assertion.

But Drescher says he feels that since there's no guarantee of successful treatment, therapists must distinguish those who have the best chance of altering their sexual orientations from those who don't.

"Would you offer the treatment to all [patients] knowing not everyone would improve?" he asks.

Jacie stopped seeing the Christian counselor after four or five sessions, but says the damage was done. She says she would read her Bible at three in the morning just to find verses that could refute what the therapist had told her.

She says it was devastating to hear a Biblical scholar with a psychology degree condemning her to hell.

"It makes you feel horrible," Jacie says. "You've been going to church all your life and God loves everybody except you."

'Don't play God'

Reparative therapy's power to inflict feelings of guilt and depression on those who seek it makes it unscientific and unnecessarily harmful, says Amy Kobeta, director of public affairs at the Arizona Human Rights Fund, a gay rights organization

Reparative therapy organizations function under the belief homosexuality is a mental disorder, which major psychological organizations, like the American Psychological Association, have shown is false, she says.

Rather than trying to conform to preconceived notions of others, gay men and women unhappy with their sexuality should seek licensed psychological therapy that helps them discover their true identities, she says.

Jacie says the first therapist she ever visited to combat her struggle with her gender orientation was a Southern Baptist counselor in his seventies who diagnosed her as a transsexual after only three meetings. She adds he represents a faction of religious therapists genuinely interested in counseling people like herself.

"There's a whole lot of [reparative therapists] out there that are just advancing their own agenda," Jacie says.

Mike Haley, the director of the gender issues department at Focus on the Family, an organization aimed at upholding traditional family values, says it is unfair for gay-rights organizations citing reparative therapy's harmful effects to restrict its availability when it has helped thousands of people, like himself, "[walk] away from homosexuality." People should have the option to seek therapy that will help them understand and, if necessary, eliminate homosexual feelings, especially for Christians who realize their behavior violates God's will, Haley says.

He cites a verse from 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in the New International Version of the Bible, which was also referenced by Schneider, to highlight how homosexuals can and have changed their sexual orientation. It states, "Do you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral ...nor homosexual offenders...will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you just justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of our God."

Though the Bible states explicitly that homosexuality is wrong, he says, some churches too often condemn homosexuals and refuse to offer counseling or even allow gays and lesbians to participate in prayer services.

Instead, churches should reserve judgment, he adds.

"Introduce them to Jesus rather than push them away from him," Haley says.

When Jacie attended her old church after her final meeting with the fundamentalist counselor, she received only judgmental stares from attendees who had been informed by her parents what had occurred, she says.

Jacie now attends the United Church of Christ, which has helped her examine scientific evidence within parts of the brain indicating a genetic basis for homosexuality and transsexuality, and realize she has no choice in being who she is, Jacie says.

"They know that, basically, most people would love to be normal," she says.

The Rev. Phil Reller, of Tempe's First Congregational Church, goes further by saying it is very arrogant of the reparative therapy movement to presume they can repair a genetic condition because people living with it are somehow flawed. The First Congregational Church is a member of the United Church of Christ, which openly accepts gay and lesbian followers, according to the church's national Web site.

"To be a person that further lays oppression and judgment on someone based on their own belief system or their own interpretation of the scripture seems just brutal to me," Reller says.

Instead of further enhancing guilty feelings over one's homosexuality, Reller says it is his Christian responsibility to provide counseling that helps lead one to healing and self-acceptance.

"Don't play God," he adds. "If [a] person has a genetic predisposition to gayness...are we to say that God's grace is somehow not full, that they have to change?"

Moving past the shame

Jacie says that she no longer feels nearly as guilty she did initially after her sessions with the Christian counselor.

But recently, after scheduling her trachea shave and orchiectomy, Jacie says she wondered again whether she would burn in hell for her actions.

"It's [the counselor's] farewell gift to me," she says. "The question of whether I'm going to hell."

She adds that she was so angry her parents forced her to see the counselor that she would not speak with them for about four months afterward, refusing to answer their phone calls. Now, though, they are on good terms and have largely accepted her transsexuality.

Jacie says she has no qualms about being honest with her experiences and is hoping her story will stop other parents from traumatizing their own children.

"If I don't do it, I'm as bad as the people putting them through it," she says. "If you know someone's gonna start a fire and you don't tell anyone about it, you're as responsible as the one starting the fire."

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*Editor's note: Name has been changed in order to protect the privacy of the source. Jacie is the name she will adopt after her gender reassignment surgery is complete.

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