by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
It is in the news: the GOP in Texas has approved a resolution supporting 'Reparative Therapy' for Gay and Lesbian people - adults, teens, and kids. Should we be concerned by this? YES. Do most of you know why? Not really. Even though it is a resolution in Texas, it is about every one of us. Whether we came out 60 years ago or are still coming out now, 'reparative therapy' speaks to our experiences and whether we are accepted in this culture.
Reparative therapy is destructive!! To understand how and why it is damaging, you have to understand the context in which it operates and the particulars of the therapeutic approach.
Let's establish two facts:
1. Clients (in the case of minors, their legal guardians) seek reparative therapy because they experience self-hatred (or the hatred expressed by the legal guardians) related to being LGBTQ.
2. Being GLBTQ is innate!!
When these two facts converge, the harmful nature of reparative therapy is created. Here is why:
We call self-hatred 'shame.' We are not born with shame. You never see a baby who hates him/herself. Self-hatred is 100% the product of the context that one grows up in. In developmental psychology, we know children develop their identities through, first, parents/family/adults, then through peers. If you grow up with the message that you are bad, sick, 'evil,' or what you do and like is a 'sin,' of course, you will hate yourself.
Humans are born with the need to be accepted and loved. This is a biological drive. It feels unsafe to be in an environment where you feel hated and unwanted. After you feel others hate you and don't want you, you begin to hate yourself. It is at this point that people develop self-preservation behaviors such as denying that they are GLBTQ. Euphemistically, we call that 'being in the closet.' These behaviors are solely to create a sense of safety and to feel loved and accepted. As well, we develop other destructive behaviors to cope with our emotional turmoil when we hate ourselves. Addictions and affairs are common.
How often do you hear someone say, 'I have a couple of Gay behaviors?' Rarely, if ever! Usually, people say, 'I am Gay.' This is a critical distinction that highlights the intricate, innate nature of human character, which we simplistically refer to as our 'sexuality.' Suggesting that being Gay is about who you have sex with is ignorant. Being Gay is an emotional orientation. It is our identity. How you judge your identity affects your emotions, relationships, and how you live your life.
This is absolutely no different than, 'I am (fill in the blank with any other word that describes your identify).' The simple statement of 'I am&' speaks to something very complex. An easy analogy is that being Gay is as innate as being right-handed or left-handed. A right-handed person can learn to use their left hand, but it will never feel as it is supposed to feel - and vice versa. This is a complex experience. If you don't believe me, try it. For the record, we now know that shaming a child who is left-handed and trying to make him/her right-handed, causes emotional problems and that is why it is no longer done in elementary schools across the world. Imagine that!!
I knew I was Gay when I was 4 years old and that is no exaggeration. I didn't know what it meant to be Gay, but I knew I liked my male peers the way my male peers seemed to like our female peers. I seemed to like our female peers 'differently.' Between the ages of 4 and 16, there was NO way I could have explained that to anyone, but it was my experience. Many of us report a similar experience.
The level of one's awareness of this is so vast and influenced by so many factors. Some people know at an early age. Many repress it so much because the environment they are in does not feel safe and then that they don't realize it until some later time in life.
Here is how all of this comes together. The clinical foundation for reparative therapy is based on the concept of 'love the sinner, hate the sin.'
The harm in hating the sin is that this strategy continues to pathologize the behaviors of the client. This is an attempt to reduce complex emotions, attractions, experiences, drives, and identity to a behavior. It is not good enough to say 'stop the behaviors and you won't sin.' You are still left with someone who has formed an identity that has a big piece of shame in it because of earlier experiences. The focus is completely about the client.
More importantly, the beliefs that created the environments which formed the self-hatred all still exist. Lay-people and clinicians who practice reparative therapy believe in the 'sin' of GLBTQ clients and sin is evil and bad. Remember, self-hatred for being GLBTQ comes from the messages that others give. The focus on this therapy is NEVER with what is wrong about the messages that are given by others to young GLBTQ people.
Reparative therapists are repeating the painful experiences from earlier. A GLBTQ client can never feel safe or accepted because they intrinsically know that they 'are' Gay which is so much more than the act of sex!
Providers and lay-practitioners who do reparative therapy are perpetuating a harmful dynamic that the client has experience from early in their lives. This is unethical.
Parents/guardians who subject children to reparative therapy without being fully informed about its ramifications are acting out of ignorance and that is very questionable. Parents who are informed and still subject their children to this are doing it for their own selfish agendas and that is abusive.
Culturally, we continue to focus on that which truly creates harm in individuals and families - the messages that being GLBTQ is bad, evil, or a sin. Being Gay is not the problem and isn't what needs to be repaired.
Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a Therapist and a Contributing Writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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