Web sites with names like "inqueery" and "freetobeme" have sprung up,
directing confused teenagers and frantic parents to reparative
counselors. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), a
national group headquartered in Fairfax County, has sponsored highway
billboards in Rockville and Richmond that state "Ex-Gays Prove That
Change Is Possible."
PFOX, founded seven years ago to counter PFLAG -- Parents, Families
and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- was active in the recent battle
over sex education in Montgomery County. Central to the dispute was
the way homosexuality would be taught.
As a result of a lawsuit, PFOX has won a seat on the board that will
help rewrite the health curriculum, and its officials say they plan
to push for inclusion of reparative therapy.
Reparative therapists have their own organization, the 1,000-member
California-based National Association for Research and Therapy of
Homosexuality (NARTH), founded in 1992. Its leaders often appear
at "Love Won Out" workshops that draw more than 1,000 participants
and are sponsored by Focus on the Family, a group founded by
conservative psychologist James Dobson, a staunch opponent of gay
rights who has ties to the Bush administration.
Mental health experts are alarmed by the resurgence of a treatment
they say has been discredited.
In the view of Drescher, chair of the APA's committee on gay, lesbian
and bisexual issues, reparative therapy's ascendance resembles the
resurrection of creationism, a religious belief at odds with science
that has been rechristened with the more scientific-sounding
name "intelligent design."
"Many people who try this treatment tend to be desperate, very
unhappy and don't know other gay people," said Drescher, who has
treated about a dozen men who previously underwent conversion
therapy. (Men are far more likely than women to receive the
"I see people who've been very hurt by this," said Drescher, who said
some people do manage to temporarily change their behavior, often by
becoming celibate, but not their sexual orientation. "They spend
years trying to change and are told they aren't trying hard enough."
Catherine Wulfensmith, 46, a family therapist in Monrovia, Calif.,
said she attempted suicide several times after reparative therapy
failed to alter her attraction to women. "I bought it hook, line and
sinker," she said. "If you don't change, what are you left with?"
Reparative therapy typically involves once- or twice-weekly
psychotherapy sessions lasting a minimum of two years; it may be
covered by insurance if it is listed as being for a "sexual disorder
not otherwise specified." Patients are encouraged to delve into their
childhood relationships, especially with the same-sex parent; to
cultivate straight friends and "gender-appropriate" activities such
as sports or sewing; and to avoid anything, or anyone, gay. Prayer is
NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in Encino,
Calif., who coined the term reparative therapy and is one of its
leading practitioners, emphatically rejects the view that it is
ineffective and potentially damaging. He points to a study published
in 2003 by Columbia University psychiatrist Robert L. Spitzer which
found that therapy seemed to work for some highly motivated patients.
"It can only be damaging if the agenda of the therapist supersedes
that of the patient," said Nicolosi, who added that it should never
be forced on unwilling participants.
Although no rigorous outcome studies have been published, Nicolosi
estimates that one-third of patients treated at the Thomas Aquinas
Psychological Clinic, of which he is founding director,
experience "significant improvement -- they understand their
homosexuality and have some sense of control" but may still have gay
sex. Another third, he said, are "cured": They don't have gay sex and
the intensity and frequency of their same-sex desires is diminished,
but not necessarily gone. The other third fail to change.
Hector Roybal, a 52-year-old financial consultant in Los Angeles,
spent four years in intensive treatment with Nicolosi, who considers
him to be cured. Roybal concurs, but said he still sometimes
struggles with sexual feelings for men, although he has remained
faithful to his wife, the only woman to whom he says he feels
"I saw myself as someone who had a problem with homosexuality but was
meant to be straight," said Roybal, who, like Nicolosi, is a
conservative Catholic. "This is about making a choice."
Although reparative therapists sometimes differ about the causes of
homosexuality, they are united in saying it is not inborn and it is
Nicolosi maintains it is the result of a defective bond with the same-
sex parent. Boys who feel rejected by their fathers develop
a "defensive detachment" -- they reject them and identify with their
mothers and other females. Because opposites attract, he theorizes,
they are sexually drawn to men, even though what they are searching
for is their lost masculinity. Once they find it, he said, their
attraction to women will follow, although lifetime vigilance is
required to avoid slipping.
Even though reparative therapists say they support "free choice,"
they see nothing contradictory in their view that homosexuality is
pathological. Nor do they regard as incongruent their refusal to work
with a straight or bisexual client who thinks he or she might be gay.
In their view, homosexuals are doomed to miserable, unhealthy lives.
"We say to patients, 'Your true self is heterosexual,' " Nicolosi
said. He said he tells male patients, "Look at your body: It was
designed to fit a woman, not a man."