RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So what happens when you invite an openly gay Episcopal bishop to participate in a panel discussion alongside conservative Christians who have called homosexuality a sin and treated it like a disease that needs a cure? Well, that's easy. The panel gets canceled. That's what happened last week at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting.
A psychiatrist who describes himself as a "quiet gay activist" tried to conduct a symposium called, quote, "a balanced discussion of homosexuality in therapy, the religious dimension." It was supposed to be an attempt to address the needs of gay and bisexual patients whose religious beliefs might prompt them to seek some kind of so-called cure for their sexual orientation.
But when gay activist groups got wind of the panel they were furious, and ultimately it was cancelled. I talked with Dr. David Scasta, the forensic psychiatrist and past president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists who tried to make that discussion happen.
So there is nothing in your personal practice that has been related to these therapies that are meant to convert somebody, to help them see the error of their ways, and to, quote, unquote, "cure them."
Dr. DAVID SCASTA (Forensic Psychiatrist; Former President, Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists): That's correct, and in fact, the seminar that we were putting together to really begin to reach across the great divide and begin to talk about some of the issues where religion is such an important influence on individuals who are coming to terms with their homosexuality. We were trying to get some sense of connection with the other side to talk about what are the risk factors.
MARTIN: Well, let's step back and explain, what is the division? When a religious person who comes out and says - and identifies as a gay person, what problems arise from that?
Dr. SCASTA: If you grow up in a tradition, particularly a conservative tradition, conservative religious tradition, in which you're going to hell if you're a homosexual person, it begins to influence how you approach therapy. I mean, if you literally believe in a literal hell where you are going to burn, and fry, and be in excruciating pain not just for a moment, but for eternity because you are a gay person, then how do you go to psychotherapy in which somebody like me would be telling you that to have a happy life in this life you need to learn to accept who you are?
So, that compels so many individuals to look for some relief from the risk of damnation, and they then look for therapies that are not well-researched, not well-supported. But if there's any chance that that can rescue them from for what them is a very, very terrible occurrence from their religious perspective, they tend to go into these therapies, and that's where I really believe we've got to starting talking with the people of faith.
MARTIN: Let's talk about who you invited. You were trying to represent a variety of different viewpoints on this, but you had some fairly polarizing figures.
Dr. SCASTA: Very nationally-known figures that certainly - Warren Throckmorton, who's a psychologist at Grove City College in Pennsylvania; he has been the nemesis of gay activists for many, many years. But I was on a talk show in which Dr. Throckmorton was a call-in guest at one point, and we were talking about these kinds of change therapies, or reparative therapies.
And he came in and said, you know, we have to worry about the kinds of damage that can come from these therapies. And he cited a particular study, the Shidlo study, in which there was an effort to try to outline some of the problems that can come from reparative therapies, and said it's an important and a good study.
MARTIN: So, in that you saw some space.
Dr. SCASTA: Some glimmer of hope that maybe we can start really talking.
MARTIN: For dialogue. So, this was what propelled you. You also invited Bishop Gene Robinson, Episcopal priest who's been very high-profile.
Dr. SCASTA: He's the first elected openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. He talks about individuals having to understand that their theology can grow with - and doesn't have to be fixed at this point, and that's the kind of message that I wanted to hear.
MARTIN: How did you think the dialogue was going to go, knowing that you had two groups of people with completely different viewpoints about homosexuality? You have, on the one hand Bishop Robinson, who would say homosexuality is not a sin.
Dr. SCASTA: Right.
MARTIN: He lives in a committed relationship, and it is definitely not a disease. On the other side, you have someone like Warren Throckmorton, who says the opposite.
Dr. SCASTA: The Warren Throckmorton of five years ago is not the Warren Throckmorton of today. He has really made some enormous changes which I think are beneficial, and which - he's not going to be a gay advocate, by any means...
MARTIN: But he does believe that homosexuality is a sin.
Dr. SCASTA: What he would say is that for many people of faith, they see it as a sin, and that's something that they need to deal with. And he's not trying to impose his particular theological view on them. On the flip side was Dr. Mohler, who is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's a talk-show host. he's written a zillion different books; he's one of the brightest people on the conservative side of the religious spectrum.
He has said to Southern Baptists, 16 million members, you know, you may have to come to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a choice, and that's a big concession for Baptists. He got a lot of flak for that, so I saw a glimmer of hope that maybe we could talk. And we've been meeting as a group primarily through emails. We are not - this is not a debate. This is not for us to fight and try to show our particular side as being the strongest side, but rather to lay out where the issues are, and to begin to talk, and to talk in a respectful way, rather than an adversarial way.
MARTIN: But you are getting some criticism from members of your own community, both members of the gay rights community and members of psychiatry and gay psychiatrist groups.
Dr. SCASTA: And how.
MARTIN: And how, yes.
Dr. SCASTA: And how.
MARTIN: One man in particular, Dr. Jack Drescher is a gay psychiatrist and the former chair of the APA Committee on Gay Issues. He is just one of many voices who have spoken out against the panel, which we've said has been cancelled, but the entire notion that it was ever something that was supposed to happen in the first place. We called Dr. Drescher, and he explained it like this.
Dr. JACK DRESCHER (Psychiatrist; Gay Rights Advocate): If the people who are religious conservatives who practice these so-called conversion therapies really want to have these debates - Dr. Mohler is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary. They have a lot of rooms there. They could have the debate there. He's also on the board of Focus on the Family. They could have the debate there.
So, if they really want to debate, they don't really need to debate it at the APA. They like to get invited into mainstream organizations that disagree with them not because they are going to try and convince us, but because they wish to communicate to the public that what they do somehow has legitimacy, which it does not.
MARTIN: What is your response to those criticisms?
Dr. SCASTA: Well, let me first say I've known Jack for many years, and I have great respect for his opinion, and beliefs, and I knew that this would be his opinion. We've disagreed for a long time. I have strongly felt that we need to do some of what I'm going to call metaphorically "missionary work," and really reaching out to the people of strong religious faith.
I don't believe that this was a debate. It was never meant to be a debate. It kept getting characterized that it was going to be a debate between two sides about reparative therapy, and that's not what we set it up, and I've seen, of course, the material that everybody was going to be presenting. We had hoped to just at least get through the symposium and then talk about it, because then I think a lot of the criticism that I'm receiving from the gay advocates would calm down a bit.
MARTIN: But in the press release that you crafted for this event, to promote this event, it explained it in terms that someone might perceive this as a debate. It was characterized in left and right. Those are words that people immediately think of, oh, this is a debate about a very provocative subject.
Dr. SCASTA: I regret that particular press release. We were just working on it, and it was supposed to be not released. It got released, unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, and immediately the gay press picked it up, and it - within, literally, minutes, it was everywhere.
MARTIN: Did you mischaracterize it then?
Dr. SCASTA: Yes.
MARTIN: How has this left you feeling? You have been, I think it's fair to say, somewhat maligned by the people in your own camp for putting this thing together, and at the same time, the people who are very supportive are people on the religious right with whom you do not agree.
Dr. SCASTA: That's right.
MARTIN: Has the whole thing made you question yourself?
Dr. SCASTA: Whether I should have done that?
Dr. SCASTA: Yes and no. Certainly there are some things that I would do differently, no press release, but the ultimate goal, no. I think that we really have got to start talking with people of faith. We can't ignore it, and as long as we ignore it, there are literally millions of gays who are not going to be reached by all of the mental health professionals, no matter how supportive and how affirming they are, unless we start dealing with the religious issue.
MARTIN: And you think it's important to engage the people at the fringe, at the very extreme side...
Dr. SCASTA: No.
MARTIN: Because there are plenty of people in between?
Dr. SCASTA: I think the people that we're talking with are really coming towards the center. I don't think they are in the fringe. I mean, I can give you some fringe people who are going to be way, way different than these - than the two that we selected.
MARTIN: What do you do now, though? Have you taken two steps backwards now that all this attention has been drawn to this? And are things even more polarized than before you even set out to put this symposium together?
Dr. SCASTA: That's really hard to say, because now I'm starting to hear the quiet little messages from some of my colleagues who are saying, you know, I agree with you. They are not willing to stick their head out and get the kind of mortar shots coming at them that have been coming at me, but they are starting - I am starting to see some people who are willing to do the same kind of discussion.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming in. We appreciate you explaining your point of view in this endeavor.
Dr. SCASTA: I really appreciate it.
MARTIN: Dr. David Scasta is a forensic psychiatrist and past president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists, and one of the organizers of the panel that never was. Thank you very much for coming in. We appreciate it.
Dr. SCASTA: Thank you.
MIKE PESCA, host:
This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.