Going straight? New therapy may help gay men, women later sexual orientation - but it faces a way of opposition
In the 1970s, when gay men began coming out of their closets, Bill went deeper into his. It was one of those perfectly constructed closets, framed by marriage and children and a profession full of serious men in suits.
Way in the back of the closet, though, where nobody could see, he was living another life, sometimes having sex with as many as three men a day.But all that is over now, he says. Thanks to a new therapy, he says, he isn't gay anymore. He calls it ``coming out of homosexuality.'' `
`It's like Martin Luther King said,'' Bill explains. ``You know, `Free at last! Free at last!' Now I'm able to pass a man on the street and say, `Isn't he a nice-looking man. Good for him.' And keep on walking.''
You don't Have to Be Gay,'' says the brochure Bill holds in his hand announcing an upcoming conference at the University of Utah. The conference, ``Developing a Healthy Male Identity,'' is sponsored by a Salt Lake group called the Evergreen Foundation.
The theory that you can change your sexual orientation, and that homosexuality is unhealthy, is the cornerstone of Evergreen, whose membership is composed of men and women who classify themselves as ``former'' homosexuals and lesbians.
Most have, within the past couple of years, undergone a controversial therapy based on the work of Elizabeth R. Moberly, a British research psychologist who published ``Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic'' in 1983. Her theory has also given birth to other Evergreen-type groups in California and several other states.
It's a theory that touches deep nerves in Utah, where gays and their families struggle to understand sexual yearnings that run against the grain of conservative values.
It also touches nerves in Salt Lake City's gay community, which classifies Evergreen and its upcoming conference as misleading, unethical and dangerous.
At the heart of the controversy are unresolved questions about the causes _ and the meaning _ of sexual identity.
Tom Pritt, a Kaysville psychologist, had been working with homosexuals for years when he came across Elizabeth Moberly's ``Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic.'' In it he found confirmation of conclusions he had come to during hundreds of hours of therapy sessions.
Homosexuality, says Pritt, is not really about sex but about love. It's not about a man's inability to find women appealing but about his inability to form a ``normal'' bond with other men.
Most of the men he has treated, says Pritt, had similar backgrounds: fathers who were absent or distant; a feeling of inferiority to male peers; a feeling of being out of sync with typical male interests and abilities. On the one hand they felt a need for male love; on the other hand, afraid of rejection, they distanced themselves from traditional relationships with other men.
All men and women, says Pritt, have a need to feel close to and to feel accepted by members of their same sex. When a boy who has not felt that kind of bonding reaches puberty, that same-sex love need can become confused and eroticized. What he really desires is male closeness; what he thinks he wants is sex with another man.
Basically what this theory holds is that the whole thing is just a big mistake. A case of mistaken identity, or as Pritt puts it, ``incomplete identity.'' Inside, the theory holds, gay men are really heterosexuals who would be attracted to women if they just finished their emotional development _ by learning how to act in healthy ways around men.
Gay men can change through therapy, says Pritt, but not the typical aversion therapy tried in the past. Gay men can change, he says, but not simply by being counseled to get married.
Jim used to cruise Sugarhouse Park. Or he would hang around Liberty Park or walk through Crossroads Mall, hoping, with a lingering glance, to make a connection with another man.
That was after 18 years of marriage and a divorce, after he had sat in a therapist's office and trembled inside when he was asked to face the fact that three decades of fantasizing about men meant that he was gay.
``I didn't want to be gay,'' Jim remembers. ``Because of society, more than anything. And because I had children and I didn't want to explain that to them. And I didn't know how to act in that (gay) world. I hated that swishy style.''
Asked to explore his feelings, Jim finally decided that ``if I was gay, I'd be the best darn gay guy there ever was.'' He threw all his energies into finding the perfect man.
``At first it's intoxicating. Then it's addicting. . . . But it never was fulfilling,'' he says. ``You can't have fulfillment with another man. But the gay community doesn't want to hear that.''
And then, in 1988, someone gave him a copy of what at Evergreen they refer to as ``the gray book'' _ ``You Don't Have to Be Gay,'' by J.A. Konrad, a California man who describes himself as ``an EX-gay.''
``I read it in two afternoons,'' says Jim. ``And I knew it was right. Finally someone was saying, `You don't have to be trapped in it.' ''
So Jim began the therapy. He avoided his former haunts, although that wasn't easy. ``It took me eight months before I could drive by Sugarhouse Park.''
He started making efforts to mingle with every straight man he could find, and he joined Tom Pritt's baseball and basketball program for men who were struggling to change.
``I stood on second base and cried,'' Jim remembers. ``I could do it. And I was good, even though I was always told I couldn't be.''
Now, after 18 months of non-erotic relationships with other men, he says he notices a difference in himself.
``Every gay guy I knew longs for his International Male magazine,'' says Jim. ``When it used to come, I'd be in the middle of business and I'd have to stop and look at it. But last week one came to my office and I didn't have to look at it right away. And when I did, I realized that I was actually looking at the clothes. It's like total liberation.''
He says he is starting to feel attracted to women, although there is a tentativeness to his voice when he talks about it. It's a slow process, he says.
Those who find fault with the Evergreen approach are quick to point out that it ignores the latest research into the neurobiology of sexual orientation.
``The ultimate cause of sexual orientation has never been fully determined,'' notes Salt Lake psychiatrist Jan Stout. ``But most of the top investigators in the field believe that biological factors are extremely important.''
Stout, who in the early 1970s believed that homosexuality was a learned behavior that could be treated with therapy, had decided by the mid-1980s that that viewpoint was ``wrong and simplistic.''
Homosexuality is a result of a complex combination of environmental and biological causes, says Stout.
It is in the uterus, he says, that the brain begins to differentiate between male and female. In the embryo we all start out as female, until the point, in about half of us, when a Y chromosome begins to create male organs. After that, in males, the hormone testosterone creates further changes that will later lead to masculine behavior and sexual feelings.
But in some male embryos, less testosterone is produced, possibly because of maternal stress or certain drugs. Although animal studies cannot always be generalized to humans, says Stout, they have confirmed ``the crucial role'' that prenatal hormones play in later sex-role behavior. `
`I've treated hundreds of homosexuals,'' notes Stout. ``Some have the pattern of weakened father bonds, but not all by any means. . . . I think it's a case of putting the cart before the horse,'' he says about the theories of male bonding and homosexuality. ``They haven't been able to make good bonds with father because of the way they feel inside. It's the effect of the biology, not the other way around.''
A few people can maybe make changes that feel right to them, says Stout, but it's more a question of willpower and behavioral changes, rather than a real shift in sexual orientation. Because of this, he finds the theories potentially dangerous.
``You're going to have young people who read anecdotes about people who have changed, and they'll say, `What's wrong with me? I haven't been able to change.' You'll increase their sense of failure. And I think you'll see more suicides. That's my concern here. . . . We should accept people the way they are.''
That conflict between ``validating the self-worth of the individual'' vs. encouraging change, says Salt Lake clinical social worker LaDonna Moore, lies behind the decision of the Utah chapter of the National Association of Social Workers not to give continuing education credit for this weekend's conference.
Moore objects to the conference brochure's characterization of homosexuality as a sickness. ``It's sad to see the complexity of human beings' emotional and sexual state reduced to `compulsive behavior.' ''
Because the mental-health profession as a whole no longer considers homosexuality a disorder, Moore feels that it is ``unethical'' for local therapists to participate in the Evergreen conference. Five Utah therapists _ four licensed clinical social workers, a psychiatrist and a psychologist _ are among the presenters at the Friday session, which is geared to health professionals. The Saturday session is open to the public.
A group of ``concerned citizens'' _ including some mental-health workers and members of the Salt Lake gay community _ will counter the Evergreen claims at a press conference on Friday.
Local gay activists find the conference, and the concepts behind it, offensive, says Rocky O'Donovan, director of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Utah.
Not all gays want to change, he says, although there was a time, during high school, when he fasted and prayed to do just that. But now he says, ``If you put a pill, with no side effects, here on the table that would make me heterosexual, and next to it you put a $1,000 bill, I'd say, `Absolutely not.' ''
The real question, says O'Donovan, is not why some men are gay, or whether they should be, but how to best accept them if they are.
Human sexuality has never been as simple as the birds and the bees, and homosexuality is no less perplexing or charged with emotion now, after all the studies and books and talk shows and theories that have tried to understand it.
Is it possible to change a person's sexual orientation? The debate continues.
In the meantime Jim tells this story: He was jogging down the street not long ago when, all of a sudden, a feeling of ``completeness'' came over him.
``I feel now,'' he explains with a look of relief, ``that I have the same parts and the same capabilities that every man has.''
-For more information, call the Evergreen Foundation at 535-1658, or the Gay and Lesbian Community Council at 359-5555. The names of Evergreen members used in this article have been changed at their request.