I'm gay and these people claim they can cure me
now I'm gay -- and furious
My name is Declan and apparently I have a major emotional, possibly mental disorder: homosexuality. It would seem that I'm a gay man today either because I'm depressed and lonely, am 'wounded' from childhood, or because I'm simply missing God from my heart.
But help is at hand in the form of organisations that claim they can "cure" or "fix" homosexuality through a combination of psychotherapy and prayer. Last weekend, a conference took place in Belfast organised by Core Issues, an evangelical Northern Irish Christian group that promotes so-called "conversion" or "reparative therapy".
The keynote speaker at the event was the Rev Mario Bergner, a Chicago-based Anglican preacher, who claims to have been cured of homosexuality and "11 symptoms of Aids" through the power of prayer. He is now, he says, happily married with five children.
The conference was put together by Dr Mike Davidson, who is, according to his conference profile, a trainee psychodrama psychotherapist and a member of the British Association of Psychodrama (which is registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy).
A former homosexual himself, Dr Davidson explains: "For a long time my homosexual feelings felt absolutely natural. However, other longings, like the desire to father a child, and to love and be loved by a woman, became more of a priority. More importantly, 200 years of Judeo-Christian tradition, and 150 years of an important branch of psychological research have recognised that homosexuality is neither innate nor immutable."
Dr Davidson says Core doesn't view homosexuality as a disease or mental illness, but rather as a "socio-political construction" that limits human sexuality to gay, straight or bisexual.
"We believe all people should have the right to self-identify in the matter of their sexual identity," Dr Davidson says. "People who want to be gay have the right to be so. Why can people who do not want to be gay not be helped to find the identity that they are comfortable with?"
Personally, this is a difficult topic for me to write on, as I find the concept of gay conversion therapy -- or whatever name they want to put on it -- profoundly offensive and insulting, not to mention deeply unethical for any psychotherapist to endorse.
The idea that religion can offer 'healing' for homosexuality, that it should not be celebrated as part of the human condition, and that it is not a natural occurrence in nature --as nearly all the scientific evidence (not accepted by Core) would suggest -- is, to my mind, abhorrent, ludicrous, and positively medieval in its logic.
My own distaste aside, gay conversion is an issue that needs to be explored, because, to put it mildly, it's not a helpful development in the advancement of gay acceptance in society, or religion for that matter.
To date, there is little evidence that such organisations or therapists are offering these services in the Republic, but with a growing movement in the North, Britain and the US, prominent leaders in the Irish gay support network are not taking any chances.
"It's mushrooming in the North and in the UK and it's a threat on the horizon here, so we're working with professional bodies such as the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland to develop clear guidelines for psychiatrists and psychotherapists," says Odhran Allen, director of mental health strategy with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).
Gay British journalist Patrick Strudwick spent several months investigating gay-to-straight conversion therapy, undergoing "treatment" from two psychotherapists who made no secret of their view that homosexuality was far from natural, but rather a composite of "mental illness, addiction and anti-religious phenomenon".
The therapists traced Strudwick's sexuality to depression and supposed inadequate parenting, and even went as far as to suggest that Patrick is only gay because he was sexually abused as a child (which he wasn't).
Since the publication of Strudwick's findings, both therapists have come under investigation by the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP).
"What makes this practice so dangerous is that there's huge dishonesty about it," says Strudwick, who has since set up an anti-conversion campaign group, the Stop Conversion Therapy Taskforce (SCOTT).
"Reparative therapists package it as offering a service for those who come of their own choice for help. It's always delivered in a very smiley and warm way, so when you see them in action, you can understand how a vulnerable person could get lured into it," he says.
That raises a crucial point: that people voluntarily seek these organisations and individuals out, so there must be a demand for reparative therapy. "Just because a client comes to a therapist looking for something doesn't mean they should automatically get it," Strudwick responds.
"It's akin to a black person coming to a therapist saying they want to be white. A therapist isn't going to just hand that person a bottle of skin bleach. That further pathologises the anxiety, and confirms to the patient that there's something wrong with them, when actually it's the beliefs themselves that are the problem."
The 'treatment' didn't work on Strudwick, though he admits that at the time they managed to get under his skin. "Their nasty little messages do worm their way into your subconscious," he admits.
"They have this whole thing about analysing your sexual thoughts and why you're attracted to men, which is something I never even thought to do before."
As for the effectiveness of gay conversion, Core's Dr Davidson acknowledges that there are "relapses".
"There is always a maintenance issue with anyone learning to manage their sexuality in a way that differs from how they have been expressing it," Davidson says.
"But we do these people an injustice to say they are just 'bi' or 'repressed'. They have as much right to align themselves as they want to -- clearly as much right as anyone wanting to identify as 'gay'."