NARTH is always good for a laugh, but not the funny kind. Derision is more appropriate. NARTH is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Its leadership consists of psychologists and psychiatrists still disgruntled that their professional organizations (the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association) no longer regard homosexuality as a mental disorder. NARTH is therefore a haven for the last of the hardcore "reparative therapists" who claim they can "straighten out" homosexuality. These practitioners provide a veneer of respectability to such operations as Exodus International, which describes itself as a ministry to those "who want to recover from homosexuality." (By the way, the ex-gay founders of Exodus International fell in love with each other and became ex-ex-gay, but that story is not featured in Exodus literature.)
Dr. Charles Socarides, M.D., is one of the grand old men of reparative therapy. A co-founder of NARTH, Socarides bills himself an advocate of homosexuals, defending their civil rights even as he works to wipe them out. Of course, he intends merely to show his clients the path to a thoroughly normal heterosexual lifestyle, so it's no wonder he thinks of himself as the homosexual's friend. Socarides recently published A Freedom too Far, in which he argues that academia and medicine have been politicized to the point that it is now difficult to speak honestly about sexual orientation. Socarides is particularly disturbed that same-sex orientation is now seen as a normal variation, like being right- or left-handed. The NARTH blurb for his book observes that Socarides adamantly denies that people are born gay:
He knows that the seeds of his patients' homosexual orientation were planted in their earliest years, usually before the age of three, and their appropriate gender-defined self identity impaired as the result of early family relationships.
We have all heard this before, of course. It's the classic explanation for why boys "turn" gay. Mommy smothers them and Daddy ignores them. (The geniuses who came up with this diagnosis never seemed to consider which was cause and which was effect. Boys may be rejected by their fathers in consequence of their being perceived as gay, rather than "becoming" gay because they are rejected.) In any case, Socarides is certain that the dysfunctional family constellation is the locus of homosexual orientation in children. And he knows how to fix it!
I gave away my punch line in the title of this entry. Dr. Socarides has a gay son. His name is Richard and he served during the Clinton years as the administration's liaison to the gay community. As you might imagine, relations are somewhat strained between père and fils. Perhaps it would be impolite, but nevertheless still appropriate, to ask the good doctor how much he neglected his son during Richard's childhood. What's more, why didn't the great expert diagnose and cure the condition?
Shades of Kinsey gray
Beating up on Charles Socarides is too easy. While some of the so-called reparative therapists are no better than charlatans, Dr. Socarides appears to be entirely serious and sincere. Is he simply so self-deluded that even the existence of his gay son has not managed to disabuse him? I think we can make a more constructive point than merely dismissing Dr. Socarides as a fool, although I admit that's tempting.
Reparative therapists have some telling evidence to support their claim that homosexuals can become heterosexuals. After all, to deny this is to deny the existence of the many ex-gays who belong to Exodus International and similar organizations. These people are telling us forthrightly that they used to be gay and now they are straight. Are all of them wrong?
In many cases, the supposed ex-gays are just fooling themselves. Some are desperate to conform to the anti-gay tenets of a religion or to please their families. But I doubt that this describes all ex-gays. Since sexual orientation is complex, it seems to me that humanity must contain some interesting variations. These may suffice to provide the examples that Socarides and others stake their reputations on.
When Kinsey shocked the delicate sensibilities of Americans with his published research on human sexuality, he acknowledged the complexity of orientation by promulgating his famous Kinsey scale. The purely heterosexual individual is 0 on the Kinsey scale and the pure homosexual is 6. An ambisexual person with exactly equal attraction to males and females would therefore be a Kinsey 3. Some people doubt that 3's even exist, perhaps because it's a commonplace of "coming out" literature how gay people may style themselves as "bi" before 'fessing up to actually being gay. But I see no reason to doubt that there are people in all categories on the Kinsey scale.
As with any numerical measure, the Kinsey scale may mislead by suggesting that something as complex as sexual orientation may be precisely gauged by a single number. How many decimal places should we strive for? Nevertheless, the scale is a useful starting point. Let's say you're an unhappy 4. You wish you were a 0. Your family offers to pay for treatment and ships you off to some treatment facility. Let's assume that the personnel at said facility are not complete wackos. (Unfortunately, there are entirely too many examples where outright loons run the operation.) Remember, you're a couple of Kinsey points away from being 100% gay, so with motivation you might be able to find the inner heterosexual. Who knows, you might even suppress your dominant gay side to the degree that you start to think of yourself as straight. With a little creative visualization in your head, your body might be able to act out the straight role. Hurray! You're cured!
No, you're not. You've just learned to express a different component of your sexuality. It's not really a conversion. Perhaps a Kinsey 3 or 4 could act out the straight role indefinitely, but only at the cost of denying a major component of his or her makeup. A 5 or 6 would truly be acting out a charade. The prize specimen would be a Kinsey 1 or 2 who was panicked by the occasional gay stimulus into seeking treatment. You'd expect that they would be the heralded longterm success stories that NARTH would never tire of telling.
Still, it's curious how fragile the ex-gays seem to be. Johan Paulk of Love Won Out fell off the wagon pretty badly when he was found hanging out in a District of Columbia gay bar. He said he just needed to use the rest room, which I think we may agree is a less than compelling explanation. Despite my discussion of the shades of Kinsey gray which characterize our proclivities, I do believe that we do cluster rather dramatically at the two ends of the scale. While human sexuality is diverse enough and just, perhaps, plastic enough to cover the entire range and allow a certain measure of individual relocation within the spectrum, NARTH and Exodus are sadly fooling themselves and others when they contend that it's really a choice. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Dr. Charles Socarides died on December 25, 2005, of heart failure. He was 83.