Shaming, Reparative Therapy and Suicide

May 25, 2012

In the news recently, two events catch my attention — especially in relation to one another and to Indiana Yearly Meeting’s misguided Minutes on Homosexuality .

In New Jersey, Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman sentenced Dharun Ravi to 30 days in jail, plus 300 hours of community service, a counseling program related to cyber-bullying, a $10,000 fine to be donated to a group that assists victims of bias crimes, and three years probation. In 2010, Ravi had surreptitiously videotaped his roommate Tyler Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room, and then had twittered to his friends about what he was watching.  Clementi committed suicide three days later.  Ravi had faced up to 10 years in prison after a jury convicted him of all 15 counts against him including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and tampering with a witness and evidence.  Gay rights groups had urged leniency in sentencing urging that while what Ravi did was reprehensible, an extended jail sentence was not an appropriate response.  Judge Berman said the jail time was for witness- and evidence-tampering and lying to police, and not for Ravi’s bias crimes against his roommate.

Earlier, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer renounced a study he had published in 2003 that lent support to the proposition that highly motivated individuals could go from gay to straight through “reparative therapy.”  Spitzer wrote the editor of the journal in which the study was published, the Archives of Sexual Behavior.  In the letter, Spitzer, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, went further: “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some ‘highly motivated’ individuals.”

The Spitzer study had been the most significant published research claiming efficacy for “reparative therapy.”  The study was particularly influential because Spitzer had led the effort in 1972-73 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.

Spitzer had earlier backed away from the study, but he was prodded to make public his renunciation by a recent statement from the Pan American Health Organization and the World Heath Organization that “therapies” to change sexual orientation lack medical justification and threaten health The PAHO/WHO statement notes that there is a professional consensus that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality and cannot be regarded as a pathological condition.  The PAHO/WHO statement says “no rigorous scientific studies demonstrate any efficacy of efforts to change sexual orientation. However, there are many testimonies about the severe harm to mental and physical health that such “services” can cause. Repression of sexual orientation has been associated with feelings of guilt and shame, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.”

“Even suicide.”

Tyler Clementi committed suicide out of shame.  He was struggling to understand his identity, had only recently told his parents he was gay, and during his first few weeks in college he was publicly humiliated by his roommate.  He was emotionally vulnerable.  Ravi’s shaming pushed him over the edge.

For others, so-called “reparative therapy” can deepen that same shame by leading gays and lesbians to deny and repress their homosexual identity, which is a natural variation in human sexuality.  In pressing gays and lesbians to deny their sexual orientation, “reparative therapy” can drive them to despair, depression and even suicide.

Our 1982 Minute declares homosexuality a sin, offering just the five Bible snippets in support.  Our 1994 Additional Minute encourages people to people to believe that belief in God will take away their homosexuality.  “We recognize that upon confession and repentance, God is fully able to heal the wounds of sin in own time. God desires wholeness for all and offers unconditional love and grace. We believe that provides for wholeness through a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ, in which the gift of the Holy Spirit provides the power for comfort and healing.”

I believe that confession and repentance can heal the wounds of sin.  But I also believe that homosexuality is no sin.

I believe that in declaring homosexuality a sin we drive to despair those whom God has made (in His image!) to be sexually attracted to those of the same sex.  That despair can breed depression and suicide.  The 1982 Minute is in error in declaring a homosexuality a sin.  The 1994 Minute compounds that error and points in dangerous directions.

Our 1994 Additional Minute says “In addition to presenting the Gospel, Friends can offer the following resources: counseling; prayer for physical, spiritual and emotional healing; peer support: and positive examples of non-sexual, same sex relationships.”

Counseling?  You mean the professionally repudiated, harmful sham that goes by the name of “reparative therapy?”  Is that what we are encouraging?

On the one hand, our Minutes add support to the shaming and the bullying that feed psychological and physical assaults against gays and lesbians.  On the other hand, our Minutes offer no way forward for gays and lesbians except deeper into self-denial, despair, depression and sometimes suicide.  We cannot call these Minutes a work of love.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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