Treatments

Can Therapy Help Change Sexual Orientation?

Conversion therapy — a controversial psychotherapy that tries to help gay men and women become straight — is in the news again. Marcus Bachmann, the husband of Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, runs a counseling clinic that reportedly provides the therapy. His wife has had to face many questions about it lately, prompting her to say Thursday, "My husband is not running for the presidency ... neither is our business."

The debate about the value of conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, has been raging in psychological circles for more than a decade.

About three years ago, the American Psychological Association came out with an official position paper on it. The APA said that it was basically a bad idea, and that there was no evidence that it was possible to change sexual orientation. Therapists also shouldn't tell their clients that change was possible, the APA noted.

This morning on Morning Edition I profile the conversion therapy experiences of two men. They represent two sides of a debate that hasn't been resolved despite the APA's position.

One side feels that therapies which seek to make gay people straight are invariably harmful. The other says the therapies can help gay people who are profoundly uncomfortable with same-sex attraction.

The first man I spoke to, Rich Wyler, went through the therapy and says that it genuinely changed him in a positive way. "The actual dynamic between me and the male world shifted," he says. He says he's a heterosexual now.

The second man, Peterson Toscano, sought to change himself through 17 years of therapy and was utterly traumatized by it. One of the programs he went through made him write reports of all of the sexual experiences he could remember, then read them aloud to his family when they came to visit him.

The APA's position infuriates Wyler. He feels like the the group is saying that he doesn't exist, that it's impossible for someone attracted to the same sex to change that orientation. He also pointed out that at the moment, a man who wants to become a woman — a transsexual, that is — can, according to APA policy, ethically get treatment to help him with this goal. But a man like him who wants to be attracted to a woman cannot.

"That makes no sense whatsoever," Wyler says.

But Toscano feels the APA position is necessary. He's seen first hand how conversion therapies harm by coaching gay men and women to annihilate a part of themselves.

"The vast majority of people who try to change cannot, and the distress that's caused is real," says Toscano. "It's not just that this doesn't work. It's destructive."

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