Conversion therapy, explained: by a practitioner and a victim

NOTE: This piece was originally released for publication in February 2016. You can also read it here. It was a requested follow-up to this story.

RICHMOND, Va.  – “For fifteen years of my life, I experienced unwanted same-sex attractions,” Christopher Doyle said.

Doyle grew up with strained relationships with his parents. He said he couldn’t bond with his father, whom he characterizes as “not a bad man” but emotionally absent: “It set me up on a trajectory of not really being able to bond and connect with my peers and my male friends.”

Doyle’s mother, on the other hand, was “always emotionally needy” because of his father’s distance. “And then when I was about 8 years old,” Doyle said, “I was sexually abused by an older female cousin for about a year, which created a lot of fear of the opposite sex.”

At around 9 years old, Doyle began to experience what he refers to as “unwanted same-sex attractions.”

“I was very confused because in my heart, I didn’t really believe I was a gay person. But of course, as an 8 year old or 9 year old, I didn’t really understand,” Doyle said. “And I had interest in girls and attractions toward girls, and dated girls, too. But for me, having a healthy relationship with either a boy or a girl was simply impossible because of these early experiences of trauma.”

At 23, still searching for a resolution to the traumas he had experienced as a child, Doyle entered therapy with a counselor. After making peace with those issues, Doyle says he no longer experienced same-sex attraction.

“I was using sex with men to fill an emotional void, when what I really wanted was healthy relationships with guys,” Doyle said. “And that was my story. And ever since that time, I haven’t struggled with same-sex attractions at all.”

Over the years, Doyle sought out a variety of counseling methods to address what he refers to as “the issues underneath same-sex attractions and sexual identity.”

“I didn’t feel this was who I really was,” he said. “It was in conflict with my faith; it was in conflict with who I really thought I was for a person.”

Doyle has been married to a woman for nine years, and they have five children. He is now a licensed psychotherapist in Arlington whose methodologies include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – all of them standard therapeutic tools.

He describes his work as therapy that specializes in sexual identity and orientation, helping gay-identified clients deal with the stigma of being gay while addressing the unwanted same-sex attraction of his other clients.

Doyle’s detractors have a more succinct label for what he does: conversion therapy, a controversial practice that has been banned for minors in four states – California, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon. Some Virginia lawmakers wanted to add Virginia to the list. That effort failed during this year’s session of the General Assembly.

* * *

“I believe Chris Doyle when he says that he’s not doing harm using outlandish methodology,” Apryl Prentiss says. “What their new term of rhetoric is – it’s to say, ‘Oh no, it’s just talk therapy; we’re not doing any damage.’ And the bottom line is, talk therapy is actually the most insidious of all of those methodologies.”

Prentiss and Doyle have several things in common. They have both struggled to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs. They had negative experiences with religious leaders as same-sex attracted people. They have both been through therapy that specifically addresses sexual orientation.

And they both now describe themselves as happily married to women.

The major difference between them is that Prentiss identifies proudly as a lesbian and is an outspoken opponent of the type of therapy Doyle and his colleagues perform.

Prentiss is the deputy director for the Alliance for Progressive Values, a Richmond-based nonprofit that advocates for “economic fairness, social justice and good government.” She was instrumental in developing legislation to ban conversion therapy in Virginia.

Three bills, all sponsored by Democrats, tried to do that. HB 427 died in a House subcommittee; SB 262 and SB 267 were killed by the Senate Education and Health Committee. The legislative hearings drew both proponents and critics of the therapy.

The Senate hearing was a lightning rod for media attention, as Sen. Charles CarricoR-Galax, compared homosexuality to childhood cancer and John Linder, a self-described former homosexual, said he considers the therapy successful but still experiences same-sex attractions.

Prentiss speaks freely about her experiences with conversion therapy because, she says, “There are many survivors that are not able to stand up and advocate this way because of the harm done to them.”

Prentiss was raised Christian. When she began to realize she might be gay, she feared losing her religious community as well as the acceptance of her family. These fears, she said, caused her to deny her sexuality and seek out therapy to help her move past her same-sex attraction.

Prentiss spent months in an ex-gay ministry that used ascetic methods, as well as time with a psychotherapist who she said used methods similar to Doyle’s.

“Conversion therapy is predicated on the belief that you’re not born gay – there has to be a cause for it,” Prentiss said. “So there’s abuse in your past, or a mother issue, or a father issue, or something like that. The first thing that a conversion therapist does is dig and dig and dig for that cause – to the point where some people, myself included, have felt pressure to create one.”

Prentiss said the therapy she underwent prompted her to fixate on her sexuality to a distressing degree.

“If I were to go to lunch with a female friend, my conversion therapist would be say, ‘Well, why did you want to go to lunch with her? Did you have any sexual thoughts while you were sitting there talking to her?’” Prentiss recalled.

“And I’d say, ‘No, we were just hanging out.’ But it teaches you to overanalyze everything, to perseverate on everything that’s coming through your head. And that in itself just causes severe introspection. When you’re already depressed, as anyone in that situation would be, it can be really dangerous.”

* * *

So far, what is referred to in law as conversion therapy has been banned in four states and Washington, D.C. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York recently said he will take steps toward a ban there as well.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution expressing concerns about “sexual orientation change efforts.”

“Recent studies of participants in SOCE identify a population of individuals who experience serious distress related to same sex sexual attractions. Most of these participants are Caucasian males who report that their religion is extremely important to them,” the resolution said.

The APA ultimately concluded that “results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE.”

The association cited a study that “some individuals modified their sexual orientation identity (i.e., group membership and affiliation), behavior, and values.”

“They did so in a variety of ways and with varied and unpredictable outcomes, some of which were temporary,” the resolution reported.

Prentiss and Doyle have diverging opinions on the success of SOCE.

“I would say that in my personal experience of the people I know who have been through conversion therapy or other ex-gay efforts, my personal experience would be that 95 percent of those people are now living happy lives as gay people,” Prentiss said.

“The people that I know who have gone through conversion therapy and ex-gay programs and are now living a heterosexual life, most of those people were really abused as children. So I don’t know that their orientation was ever homosexual, as much as they were having trauma that was leading them to act out in a homosexual way or be confused about their sexuality.”

Doyle describes his therapeutic efforts as effective for clients who are distressed by their same-sex attraction. But he said some of his conflicted clients do end up ultimately identifying as gay.

“Not all times where someone comes in conflicted with same-sex attraction, is that person is going to go toward the heterosexual spectrum,” Doyle says. “That’s a reality that we don’t dispute, and it’s not necessarily even the point. … I work with clients like that, and I advocate for a lot of gay and lesbian minors who have parents who are unaccepting of their sexual orientation.”

Doyle was asked if unwanted same-sex attraction was something that could be addressed in a more general therapeutic context, instead of by a specialist. He expressed reservations.

“Let’s just say this therapist is a gay-identified therapist that is adamantly against the idea that there is any fluidity in sexuality,” Doyle said. “Then that therapist may actually steer that client against his or her will into embracing a gay identity when the client didn’t want that.”

Doyle went on to say that he has personal biases, as all therapists do, but that he would refer a client to another therapist if he felt he could not help them.

Prentiss disputed the idea that the average therapist who identifies as gay would counsel clients in a biased way.

“A real therapist would never make a judgment and then encourage someone one way or the other based on their own judgment. A real therapist lets the client say, ‘I think I’m gay’; lets the client say, ‘I think I’m straight but I have these fractions’; or lets the client be the one to say, ‘I’m going to try to choose to be gay or straight,’” Prentisssaid.

“Good therapists don’t have an agenda; that’s not what’s happening in real therapy sessions. That is what happens with conversion therapists.”

Prentiss stressed that the bill she worked on was aimed at protecting children under 18, not banning the therapy for adults.

“You’re talking about a minor who is still in the normal phase of identity formation, period – not just sexual identity, but their overall identity being formed,” she said.

Doyle challenged the suggestion that his therapy methods might be harmful to children.

“I am the last person that would ever force a teenager to go through therapy,” he said. “But in my experience, that doesn’t really happen that much.”

Is “unwanted opposite sex attraction” really a common concern for people? Not according to Google. A search for that exact phrase turns up only 106 results, most of which are tongue-in-cheek.

In an email, Doyle said he doesn’t even know any therapists who specifically help clients who are gay resolve unwanted opposite-sex attractions.

“But I have had cases where a client had trauma from females and experienced unwanted sexual compulsions/attractions for the opposite sex that they felt were unhealthy and destructive, while also experiencing unwanted same-sex attractions,” he said.

Though they disagree on many points, Prentiss and Doyle agree on one thing: “Sexual orientation change efforts” can be dangerous when left up to religious leaders.

“The therapy that we do isn’t the same thing as maybe some of the bad experiences that people have had,” Doyle said. “And it really grieves my heart that they’ve had those bad experiences, because I had the same bad experiences with a pastor when I was their age. And if I had worked with a licensed professional who knew what they were doing, it could have saved me years of heartache.”

The attempt to ban conversion therapy for minors in Virginia failed in part because some legislators feared it might infringe on freedom of religion. They said such a ban could stop clergy from counseling young members of the congregation who are gay. Prentiss expressed frustration with this argument.

“There is definitely a gray area over here, which is hugely dangerous, which is these pastors who are acting like counselors and maybe even pastors who are licensed as counselors. We can’t do a lot about that legislatively,” she said.

“What we’re trying to avoid right now is parents with good intentions going and desperately looking someone up online, saying, ‘Oh, this is a licensed therapist; this person can help my kid.’ And going to them in the most dire of circumstances, and having this person say, ‘Oh, absolutely, I can help you with that.’ I mean, it’s predatory.”

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