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The Real Risks Involved With Gay Conversion Therapy For Teens

Danielle Tarasiuk |
January 4, 2013 | 12:34 p.m. PST

Executive Producer

Courts have blocked attempts to make conversion therapy illegal in California. (Creative Commons)
Courts have blocked attempts to make conversion therapy illegal in California. (Creative Commons)
Gabriel Arana came home one day to find his mother weeping in her bedroom. He had a feeling he knew what this was about. 

“Are you gay?” she asked fighting through the tears.

Arana said yes before she could finish asking. 

He was a freshman in high school. 

Arana’s mother had discovered an email exchange where he confessed to a friend his crush on a male classmate. 

Worrying for her son, she printed out a stack of materials about gay reparative therapy and Dr. Joseph Nicolosi in Encino, Calif., a pioneer in the field, who promised a cure for homosexuality. 

At first Arana thought it was a joke and that it would not work, but he was also intrigued by the notion that he could possibly not be gay anymore, something he thought would make his life easier. He flew from his small town in Arizona on the border with Mexico to Los Angeles to meet with Nicolosi, and agreed to have weekly sessions with him over the phone.   

Arana was signing up to undergo a controversial form of therapy that California is now trying to curtail. Practitioners of gay conversion therapy view homosexuality, at its heart, as a mental disorder that can be – and should be – cured. But leading psychologists condemn the therapy and argue that it is based on outdated ideas about homosexuality. 

Arana’s account of his years undergoing reparative therapy illustrates what critics say are the dangers of the practice. The American Psychological Association released a study in 2009 found that the therapy rarely resulted in permanent changes to the sexual orientation of patients and that “attempts to change sexual orientation may cause or exacerbate distress and poor mental health in some individuals.” 

Jo Linder-Crow, executive director of the California Psychology Association, said the very premise of reparative therapy is faulty. 

“Homosexuality is not a mental disorder or something that needs to be cured,” Linder-Crow said. 

Such practices like gay reparative therapy date back decades, when homosexuality was widely seen as a mental disorder in the United States. Until the 1950s, patients were often treated with electroshock therapy—a practice that has long been replaced with talk therapy. In 1973 homosexuality became declassified as a mental disorder, but a small minority of psychologists continued to provide conversion therapy. 

California lawmakers have taken aim at the controversial conversion practices and tried to ban such therapy for minors, but their efforts were recently curtailed. The state’s law was set to take effect in January and would have been the first of its kind in the nation, but proponents of conversion therapy are fighting to overturn the law in court. Last month they won a small victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco put a hold on the new law

David Pickup, a licensed therapist who practices reparative therapy and former student of Nicolosi, criticized the law. He contends that reparative therapy does not cause mental and emotional damage but helps mend severe emotional wounds that are the cause of homosexual feelings. 

“Clients come to us because they believe there is a cause and effect of homosexuality,” said Pickup, who described himself as “ex-gay” and said the therapy helped “cure” him years earlier. “The causes are usually based on extreme wounds of gender identity, usually at a very young age…Because they haven’t been able to feel subjectively good about themselves and their gender, they project that need onto other men….Manhood becomes something outside of themselves.” 

Pickup contends that homosexuality, at least in males, is an outcome of trauma, such as sexual abuse suffered as a child or having a distant father. Pickup also explains that this form of therapy helps remedy the emotional scares left behind from such traumatic experiences. 

Arana, who did not come from a broken home or have traumatic experiences as a child, said his weekly therapy sessions often revolved around his parents’ failures and the reserved nature of his father. 

Arana, then a teenager, was more than happy to spend an hour or so a week complaining about his parents and blaming all his problems on them, he said. Even then, he thought it was a stretch. 

One particular day, Arana spent his therapy session ranting about a friend who promised to call but never did. 

“It turned out through the session that the reason I was pissed off was because I was pissed off at my father and all men for rejecting me as a child, which took some work to get there,” said Arana. 

Arana’s parents grew suspicious of the treatment they had arranged. The more their son’s therapy revolved around their mistakes and shortcomings, the more they began to distance themselves from the sessions. But they still encouraged Arana to continue therapy. 

“They wanted to help me,” said Arana, “and this seemed like an opportunity for them to help me.”

Arana’s parents are from Nogales, a small town in Arizona and did not know any openly gay people, so they feared the unknown and relied on stereotypes, Arana said. 

“My mom especially closely associated homosexuality with AIDS,” Arana said. “They had this kind of impression that there is such a thing as the ‘gay lifestyle’ and that it’s degenerative, promiscuous and all these stereotypes.”

Despite his efforts, Arana’s gay feelings never faltered, but he remained in therapy up until graduating from high school. 

Reparative therapy failed Arana, like it does with almost all of its patients, according to the 2009 study by The American Psychological Association.

Nevertheless, Arana continued to pretend to be straight—he felt like he had no other choice. Arana was so convincing that Nicolosi used him frequently as proof that reparative therapy works and even at one point asked to use him in promotional materials. 

By the time Arana was a senior in high school, he knew that he was gay. And he knew that no amount of therapy could change that. But he still kept his sexuality a secret.  

As Arana was preparing to leave his small town in Arizona to attend Yale University, his mother said something that resonated deeply.

She threatened to cut him off financially if she or her husband discovered that he was gay.  

“I was led to believe that I was disordered, and when the therapy failed I was left with nothing to do about it,” Arana said. “Years after I left therapy and was convinced it didn’t work, I continued to see myself as disordered.”

The weight of his feelings finally took a serious toll. During his sophomore year in college his depressed thoughts turned suicidal and he seriously considered killing himself. He was then admitted into the hospital on suicide watch.

“A lot of the attitude that therapy reinforced was deeply damaging to me, and later combined with other circumstances, led me to want to commit suicide,” said Arana. 

It was Arana’s father who was the first by his son’s side during his hospitalization—the same man whose quiet and distant behavior Nicolosi spent years trying to link to Arana’s sexuality. 

“I’d rather have a gay son than a dead son,” Arana’s father said to him in the hospital. 

Arana acknowledges that reparative therapy was not the only factor that led him to attempt suicide. He was suffering culture shock from his move to Connecticut for college. He also worried about his mother’s threat to cut him off financially. 

“I don’t think that people kill themselves because of the therapy,” said Arana. “I think the therapy encourages especially teenagers who are very vulnerable, to see their sexuality as a pathology, as a disorder.”

Linder-Crow agrees that there is no hard evidence that reparative therapy alone has caused patients to commit suicide. But she points out that the therapy has been proven to exacerbate feelings of depression and, in some cases, suicide.  

“Who writes in their suicide note ‘I went to this therapy and I’m going to kill myself’?” said Arana. “It’s not that direct.”

Today Arana is 29-years-old and, after years of therapy, has embraced his sexuality. He is also happily married to his longtime partner of five years.   

Reach reporter Danielle Tarasiuk here or follow her on Twitter. 



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