A lesbian friend of mine recently shared on Facebook an investigative article written by Farrah Tomazin (great name) published in The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s entitled ’I am Profoundly Unsettled’: Inside the Hidden World of Gay Conversion Therapy. It looks at the remnants of conversion/reparative therapy that exist within Christian ministries in Australia today. The content is made up of a few case studies, comments from a La Trobe academic studying such groups and also Farrah’s own experience of covertly getting in touch with one such organisation under a pseudonym.
If you’re unfamiliar with what conversion therapy is, it’s basically a broad term given to the various interventions that Christian pastors, counsellors and health practitioners have applied to move people away from a homosexual orientation. It has included pretty usual Christian practices such as repentant group prayer and retreats, but also more extreme methods such as exorcism. Certain psychological interventions have been used such as aversion therapy and various treatments for trauma. In its very worst incarnations it has involved electroconvulsive therapy or attempts to rewire the brain through heterosexual erotica (I’ve heard multiple references to that last one but haven’t seen it verified).
Have I undergone reparative therapy? No. Do I affirm it? Nooooo.
Honestly, I sympathise with a lot of Tomazin’s article. It’s clear to see that too many people have been truly harmed by the therapeutic approaches some Christians have taken with gay people.
In my understanding, these therapies in relation to sexual identity have been based on very limited research, a hyper-spiritualised understanding of sexuality and poor methodology, often applying the worst parts of psychodynamic psychology (which, by the way, was first developed by Sigmund Freud. Surprising, considering the suspicion Christians have often had of Freud, right?). Most significantly, there doesn’t seem to be convincing evidence that it actually works to any degree.
I could talk about all the technical issues with conversion therapy but that would require heaps of research and would only be helpful to a few. However, I do want to narrow in on one basic but grievous misstep that has been made in both professional counselling and general pastoring of Christian same-sex attracted people.
The failure to effectively deal with shame.
Adults who have submitted themselves to reparative therapy have typically been hurting, alienated and mentally unhealthy people. Some have been told that their lack of mental health is actually a symptom of not being “gender healthy”.
I believe that dealing with mental health and one’s sexuality as though they are intrinsically linked perpetuates a whole range of problems. People who experience mental health issues, at times, tend to project their depression or anxiety onto some aspect of their life that is causing them angst: a set of insecurities, a view of their own body, a bad relationship, a damaging event in their past. Now, of course, that area may be contributing to their poor mental health but it’s not the psychological issue itself. We’re more complicated than that; it’s never just one thing that bears responsibility for a person’s problems.
Building too strong a connection between mental health issues and the specifics of sexuality is unhelpful and dangerous. Better to deal with mental health issues and deep-seated insecurities in the way in which we help all people with these problems; by providing tools for them to deal with their reality, not by changing their reality (at least, not initially).
I’m not denying that issues of sexuality can impact mental health, it clearly can and does. But if someone walks into a counselling environment and says something along the lines of, “I can’t escape a sense of guilt, I feel like damaged goods, I don’t know how I can go on living like this,” the last thing they need is to have their insecurities further entrenched. If they hear only that they are, yes, damaged and broken, and their best hope for the future is to fundamentally change themselves, what do you think will happen? They’ll never accept their situation and they’ll become increasingly ashamed and dissociated.
The thing about shame is that it attaches itself to what makes you different and then uses that to pit you against yourself and isolate you from other people. It makes you fixate and obsess over that aspect of yourself. So, for someone in a sexual minority, of course that’s going to be a big deal!
It’s tragic that Christian groups that have access to the rich resources that the Gospel gives to deal with shame have failed to utilise it.
Let’s address some of the other details in the article…