Thoughts on Reparative Therapy

Melinda Selmys has penned a piece at on the California law banning reparative therapy for those under 18.  She’s a firm supporter of the law, while I am firmly opposed to it.  I’ve been reading the back and forth in the comboxes, and it seems that a bit of a combox war has broken out between Melinda and Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons.  Both are quite zealous, and so the debate has become quite heated.  I decided to write in response to the following comment by Melinda, which I felt could benefit from a reply.

Dr. Fitzgibbons,

The problem with the use of suicide/depression/low self-esteem related statistics concerning homosexuality is that you’re committing the cum hoc propter hoc fallacy. These statistics show correlation, they do not show causation. The most likely cause of negative mental health sequelae in homosexual men and women is early childhood bullying, rejection and ostracization, usually on the basis of gender-atypical traits. Other routinely ostracized groups – people with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example – also show elevated risks for the same set of mental health problems. The problems are not behavioural. I’ve been practicing heterosexuality for 14 years, and have exactly the same struggles with depression and self-esteem that I had when I was a practicing lesbian.
Repeatedly publishing articles and comments in which negative stereotypes of homosexual men are promulgated lends legitimacy and justification to fearful and contemptuous attitudes towards homosexuals. When parents treat their gay kids as though they are mentally ill, this seriously stigmatizes these youth and creates tension within the family. If a parent has a child with depression or low self-esteem, they should seek treatment for depression and low self-esteem. If they have a gay kid who doesn’t have these problems, then the statistics are irrelevant. Either way, the parents should be aware of their unique child and his or her needs; they don’t need you or your studies to inform them of whether their kid is happy or not.


Here is my (admittedly, rather lengthy) response:

Melinda, as always you pose excellent food for thought.  I do think that one has to be careful when making accusations of logical fallacies, however.  One could argue that the Surgeon General is engaging in cum hoc propter hoc because not all cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, and since not all smokers have lung cancer, all one can say is that smoking is not always causative, but seems to be correlative.  Naturally, the studies revealing the links to cancer are myriad, but the way in which you are critiquing Dr. Fitzgibbons is reminiscent of the way the tobacco industry fought accusations of cancer in the twentieth century.  It seems you view Dr. Fitzgibbons as a bad man, and I seriously wonder what you think his motivations are.  Do you view his motivations to assist young men and women with unwanted same sex attraction as a hateful thing?

It seems to me as I read your comments in this thread, the primary reason you disagree with Dr. Fitzgibbons is because he believes that homosexuality, in and of itself, is objectively a negative manifestation in the human experience.  I know that you don’t view it that way at all, and in this you are in line with the current cultural milieu, which holds as immutable an a priori assumption that, psychologically speaking, homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality.  It is defending this view which seems to me to be the locus of your passion on this topic, veiled behind a desire to protect teenagers.

As to the following statement, I think you could be accused of making the same logical fallacy you are accusing Dr. Fitzgibbons of:  “The most likely cause of negative mental health sequelae in homosexual men and women is early childhood bullying, rejection and ostracization, usually on the basis of gender-atypical traits.”  Certainly, most anyone who is bullied will suffer depression—but because depression exists in someone who is bullied, it does not follow logically that this is the only source of depression in that person.  Tossing about accusations of cum hoc ergo proctor hoc is too simplistic:  there is room for discussion of cause and correlation with certain effects, and different theories of cause and effect can be legitimately debated.  Case in point:  your view vs. Dr. Fitzgibbons’s view.  As to your view on it, let’s parse that out a bit more, and take you and me as examples to consider:  Both of us live with same sex attraction, and like you, I also suffer from depression and self-esteem issues.  You say that you live with those even though you have been living out a heterosexual life for the past 14 years—it is possible that your and my tendency towards depression and low self-esteem is directly linked to the fact that you have the conditions in your life which lead to your homosexual desires, and that even though you are living in a heterosexual relationship, those sources of depression still exist.  Some could easily argue that your and my depression and self-esteem issues lend credence to Dr. Fitzgibbons’ viewpoint.  What about your view that depression in the homosexual population comes from bullying?  My experience belies your view.  Perhaps you suffered bullying as a young girl, or ostracization because of gender-atypical traits, but I certainly didn’t—I was class president in the fifth grade, and then again in three of my four years in high school and was the most popular kid in school.  I wasn’t bullied, and so my depression and self-esteem issues have a different root.  So we’re left, in our two cases, with two very different scenarios.  Why can’t they both be discussed, on their own merits, without accusing either side of logical fallacies as an attempt to shut down discussion?

Of course, it’s far too simplistic to say that one component over another is the cause of something like depression.  It tends to run in my family, but I happen to believe that it is compounded because of my homosexual tendencies, (and not rooted in shame or self-loathing because of how I view myself).  I don’t dislike myself because I have homosexual desires, but I happen to believe that what the Catechism says in 2357 is true about homosexuality:  it has a psychological genesis, even if that is largely unknown.  (But because it is currently largely unknown—does this mean it is unknowable, or that it is a mistake to research the subject???)

As a person who enjoys logic and reason as much as you, why do you reject Dr. Fitzgibbons’s arguments out of hand? Further, do you think his motivation to share these facts is done out of hatred?  I think of what the Catholic Medical Association has written about homosexuality and a lot of people call this fear-mongering–but I view it as a cautionary measure shared out of love for the human person.  I still remember distinctly a thread on the Gay Christian Network by a young man whose uncle died at age 25 of anal cancer.  He was worried about the life he was thinking about choosing because of what happened to his uncle.  Certainly heterosexual men can be as promiscuous as homosexual men, but it is a hard fact that homosexual men, as a rule, tend towards more promiscuity than most other segments of the population and that the average life of the homosexual man is much shorter than his heterosexual counterpart.  Is it fear-mongering to discuss that?  Is it hateful to tell a young man that there seems to be something about homosexuality that tends towards promiscuity?  Is it hateful to suggest that one’s homosexual attractions may have a psychological component which is worth pursuing? Is it hateful to suggest that perhaps the motivation for promiscuity is to fulfill wounds within one’s masculinity, which are experienced in different ways than the way heterosexual men experience wounds in masculinity, and that therefore, merely working on “masculinity wounds” with a general therapist may not be as helpful as meeting with someone like Dr. Fitzgibbons? 

I wonder why you rail so passionately against those who try to offer help to young men and women who want to see if change is possible. I think you believe that they’re all charlatans and quacks–but if that’s the case, and if we’re talking about logical fallacies, you are guilty of dicto simpliciter in making that sweeping generalization, e.g., because Richard Cohen has people hit couches with tennis rackets, everyone who tries to assist people with sexual orientation change are loonies, or because some therapists offer false promises, all therapists offer false promises.  Just because a bad dentist exists doesn’t mean all dentists are bad, or that we should stop dental treatment in order to protect people from bad dentistry!  As I have read your recent comments about all of this, you seem to have anger for anyone who even offers help, specifically geared towards changing sexual attractions.  I have really wondered why this is–I don’t understand the motivations surrounding this.  Surely you don’t think everyone who’s ever gone through reparative therapy has been damaged?  I’m one who went through a yearlong reparative therapy program and wasn’t traumatized in the least.  I didn’t see any change in my sexual attractions, but there weren’t any promises made either and if there had been, I’m smart enough to know that one can’t make promises like that.  (Which brings up one of my biggest beefs about the supposed need for protection against reparative therapists:  everyone who goes to a reparative therapist leaves his or her brain at the door, and they are like sheep led to the slaughter, with no ability to discern anything about the person who is his or therapist.  It seems remarkably patronizing and very paternalistic on the part of the California legislature).  What I did learn in my yearlong program of Living Waters was helpful in understanding my sexuality and how I had used the gift of sex in the wrong way.  I’m rather agnostic on the subject of reparative therapy:  if people want to pursue the possibility, I think they should have every right to do so, even if I think that in most cases, little change will be seen.  But what if the person has the idea that he or she could perhaps share a life with a member of the opposite sex, even with just one person, like in your case?  Shouldn’t the assistance of someone like Dr. Fitzgibbons be available to him or her? I would argue that this is something teenagers should have the freedom to do too! Even though I have never really seen any change in my attractions, (nor do I care about the subject), I know men and women who have seen significant change, and yet they don’t want to become poster children of reparative therapy, so their voice is conspicuously absent in this debate.  In the case of a friend of mine, (a man in his early twenties), he tells me he has little to no attraction for men anymore.  Is he lying to me and to himself?  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.  I take him at his word, though I’ve cautioned him that in my own life, sexual attractions ebb and flow.  Has he been cured?  I don’t like the term “cure,” but I can say that he has been helped in changing his sexual attractions by a therapist like Dr. Fitzgibbons, and now is attracted to women.  As a boy in high school, he decided he didn’t want to live with those attractions, and that he wanted to see if it was possible to change.  Why should he not have had the freedom to pursue that path, as a teenager?  It seems to me that you would limit his freedom to do just that, out of a desire to protect him.  I view that as a violation of his freedom, and it concerns me that you are advocating for the law in California. 

I am a passionate fan of your work, Melinda.  I’m grateful for your voice, one of the most vocal advocating for the path of chastity.  I don’t quite see eye to eye on this issue, however, and I think you do a disservice to legitimate discussion and inquiry by painting such a broad brush stroke of criticism to people who desire to help people with unwanted attractions discover if change is possible.  Why is this so important to stifle, at all costs?  You’ve said in this thread that there “is no cure,” and then you demand of Dr. Fitzgibbons that he put you in touch with people who’ve seen a significant change.  But why should they have to submit their life stories to you, to determine if their experience meets your criteria for “a cure?”  Perhaps all some of them wanted is to see if they could find sufficient attraction for a member of the opposite sex, so that they could have a family, and not be alone?  Shouldn’t we have an ear of compassion for them, and say that perhaps God can use secondary grace, through a therapist, to bring that about?  I would say that for most, if not all of them, they have no desire to be public about this part of their life, so thus there is a dearth of voices clamoring against the California law.  Their silence does not disprove their existence!  It seems to me that a God who raised Lazarus from the dead can change someone’s sexual attractions.  I view it, when it happens, as miraculous, but not impossible, and certainly not as rare as a resurrection.  Generally, I think God views sexual attractions in the same way he viewed the paralytic dropped through the roof:  he’s less concerned with the desires of the paralytic to be healed than he is for the spiritual well-being of the paralytic, and most often, as a result, God keeps the attractions in people’s lives. But this does not mean we should seal up the hole in the roof, which is what I think you want to do.  I would urge you to have compassion on those who desire change, and empathy for their views, even though their views about homosexuality are diametrically opposed to yours. 



4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reparative Therapy

  1. Hi,
    Glad to be able to do this on your blog — it’s a little cozier than MercatorNet, so I feel a little more comfortable dealing with some of the more personal stuff.
    Basically, one of the main influences that has shaped my thinking on queerness and reparative therapy is my son’s autism. He was diagnosed about three years ago, and naturally that plunged me into the whole set of deliberations about how to see and understand his condition: whether to label him at all, whether to think of him as a “normal” child with an autism spectrum disorder, or whether to think of him as being autistic. These issues are, of course, just as contentious within the autism community as they are within the SSA community. Ultimately I asked myself whether there was any way that I could cogently understand his personality without reference to his autism, and I realized that I couldn’t. Things that are deeply essential to his personality, like the way in which he expresses himself, the way in which he relates to other people, the way in which he thinks, are all profoundly affected by his neurology. So I think of him as an autistic child, rather than a child with autism, because I think that to hold that diagnosis at arms length, to hold out “hope” that one day he will be “normal” is a kind of ingratitude, a failure to genuinely love and accept the person that he actually is in favour of an abstraction, an ideal person that he will almost certainly never be. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements of his neurology that are “objectively disordered,” in the sense that they would never have occurred in man in the unfallen state. There are certain behaviours associated with autism that I try to alter: the meltdowns, the lack of natural empathy for other people, the tendency to withdraw into himself, and so forth. Clearly these aspects of the autistic condition are “disordered” both in a neurological and in a moral sense – and they carry certain typical risks in terms of his long-term mental health and happiness. They may be involuntary or partially involuntary, and that needs to be taken into consideration when I evaluate how best to correct him, but correct him I do. On the other hand, there are other aspects of autism that I see as positive gifts, and I think that it is an act of genuine love to celebrate those aspects, to admire what is unique and beautiful about him as an autistic child, the things that are true of him only because he is an autistic child. To reduce his autism simply to the “disabilities” is a form of myopia which I, as his parent, feel would do violence to his identity.
    The analogy to queerness is fairly obvious. One of the things that the LGBTQ community has tried to emphasize is the fact that LGBTQ identities are not reduceable to homosexual desires or behaviours – that it’s not a simple matter of “identifying with one’s sin.” In the process of coming to terms with my son’s autism, I was also inevitably forced to face the questions surrounding my own queerness, how I understand that, how I think God, as my parent, understands it. The result was a major shift in my thinking – one that I have experienced as a kind of insight or grace.
    [part 1 of 2]

  2. This brings us to the question of reparative therapy. Again, a strong analogy rose up in my research. Decades ago, before the neurology of autism started to be understood (and it’s still really not any better understood than the neurobiology of LGBTQ personalities), autism was construed as a personality disorder. The popular front-running theory was that it was caused by “refrigerator mothers,” who failed to give their autistic children sufficient cuddling, eye contact, early play and so forth. For a long time, mothers were told that their children had a severe psychiatric disorder for which they (the moms) were responsible. It was terrible. We now know that these mothers were simply responding astutely to the signals given by their babies: autistic kids tend to find cuddling, eye contact and many forms of social interaction uncomfortable. By giving them more space, these mothers were respecting the neurological needs of their children – but the psychological profession crucified them for it.
    A lot of the early treatments for autism were also experienced as violent and invasive by the people who went through them. Former clients report having created alternate personalities in order to please the therapists and protect their genuine personalities from the invasive treatments that they were subjected to. Contemporary approaches tend to be much less crude, though there are still a lot of charlatans out there offering miracle cures that really do nothing, and that, in some cases, do harm. The focus now tends to be on helping autistic people live and express themselves within the realistic framework of their neurology, rather than on trying to “cure” autism. Problems like depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues are worked on, but they are no longer used to stigmatize autistic people. The focus is on seeing the ability, seeing what is positive and working with that, rather than on fixing a disorder. Again, I see a strong parallel to the difference between, say, Fitzgibbon’s treatments for “Gender Identity Disorder” and something like Warren Throckmorton’s sexual identity therapy.
    Unfortunately, in the reparative therapy world the old “blame the parents” tropes are still alive and kicking. I’ve seen the damage that these tropes do the self-esteem of parents with SSA kids, and it makes me sick. There are real people out there who think it would have been better if they were never parents at all, that they must not have been fit to care for a child, because of the BS that Fitzgibbons and his ilk are peddling. Also, it would be crass callousness to dismiss the accounts of people who have been through these therapies and who report that it lowered their self-esteem, caused them to beat themselves up, to hate themselves, and to despair of God’s love for them. I’ve met some of those people too, and I’m not able to blame them for having giving up on Christianity after what they were put through in its name.

  3. Hi Melinda,

    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t have time to respond tonight, and probably won’t get to it in a couple of days (I have a New Year’s Eve gig, with rehearsals during the day…and then a party at night), but I wanted to say hello, and do a short response. As I read your comments about your son’s autism, it makes me think of my friend Lisa Graas, over at, who lives with bipolar disorder, and rejects the idea that her bipolar disorder is related to her identity. I can’t flesh my thoughts out more, but she has written quite a bit about identity, from a place of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as having Aspberger’s. She doesn’t like having her identity associated with her biploar disorder, and I think she’s wise in this, though of course it impacts her life, and the way she sees the world. Here’s a link to a piece she recently wrote on Aspberger’s, fwiw.

    God bless, and I’ll get back in a few days!


  4. Pingback: A Conversation About Reparative Therapy for Same-Sex Attraction - Catholic Bandita

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