By CHRIS JOHNSON, Washington Blade | Apr 30, 12:30 PM
A controversial symposium to address the relationship between religion and homosexuality is causing consternation among some psychiatrists and some gays, who argue that holding such a dialogue will legitimize homophobic views.
Controversy surrounding the event prompted a gay religious figure who was scheduled to speak at the event to cancel.
Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained a bishop by the Episcopal Church, had planned to voice his opinion at the forum, but has since pulled out.
Robinson said he canceled his plans to attend because he came to believe that making an appearance at the event would validate the concept that sexual orientation can be changed.
“Conservatives, particularly Focus on the Family, were going to use this event to draw credibility to the so-called reparative therapy movement,” Robinson told the Blade. “It became clear to me in the last couple of weeks that just my showing up and letting this event happen … lends credibility to that so-called therapy."
The forum is titled “Homosexuality and Therapy: the Religious Dimension” and is scheduled to take place Monday at the Convention Center in Washington. Panelists include Warren Throckmorton, a counselor known for helping patients alter homosexual behavior, and Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who was quoted as saying he would support prenatal treatments to convert the expected sexual orientation of unborn children.
Although the event is scheduled at the same time as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual meeting and is taking place in the same city, APA is emphasizing that the forum is not an official event.
David Scasta, a New Jersey-based practitioner and member of the APA, is one of the psychiatrists responsible for organizing the symposium. He is also slated to be one of the panelists at the forum. In the February 2008 edition of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists newsletter, Scasta describes how he set up the symposium with the intent of creating “a model for bridging the polarization between religious and scientific groups.”
Panelists should be “respectful of each other but uncompromising with regard to scientific rigor,” he wrote.
Scasta argued that holding the symposium could be a step forward in efforts to make APA statements about sexual orientation more palatable to conservative groups, which often dismiss such positions as “ranting.” If, during the forum, important figures sympathetic to religious groups’ beliefs state that they also agree with some APA assertions, these religious groups may be more willing to listen to APA positions, Scasta said.
Scasta declined a Blade interview request “to try to calm down some of the hype.”
John Peteet, a Boston-based psychiatrist and APA member, will be moderating the symposium. He said he expects the symposium will “foster some thoughtful discussion” about the issues of religion and sexual orientation.
While proponents of the symposium are arguing that it would establish dialogue between parties with opposing views, APA officials have said the event could have negative consequences. Jack Drescher, a New York City-based psychiatrist and former chair of the APA committee on gay issues, said he was “surprised when he learned about the symposium” and said if he had been consulted about the event, he would “have told the organizers this is probably not a good idea.”
Drescher, who is gay, said APA members organizing the event appear not to understand “how conversion therapists and their supporters on the religious right use these appearances as a public relations event to try and legitimize what they do.”
Inviting religious figures and proponents of reparative therapy to an APA event gives credence to speculation that APA is reconsidering its views on sexual orientation, which couldn’t be further from the truth, Drescher said.
“Conversation is good except when you try to use the conversation … to communicate that somehow this means more than it actually means,” he said.
APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. The association came out against reparative therapy in 2000 and endorsed the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2005.
Drescher said a flier circulated to advertise the event is designed to look as though it were an official APA press release. APA reprimanded Scasta for distributing this flier and was told the association was not interested in publicizing the symposium any further, Drescher said.
Condemnation of the event is not confined to other psychiatrists. Wayne Besen, executive director of TruthWinsOut.org, an organization geared toward countering “ex-gay” organizations, said the APA members putting this event together “are giving a platform to spread backwards and outdated views that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with marketing and public relations.”
Besen called Scasta “a pawn of the religious right” and said he was being “used and duped into providing” advocates of reparative therapy “an opportunity to present themselves as mainstream when they’ve been on the fringe for decades.”
Besen plans to attend the symposium and is considering actions to counter the event, such as holding a news conference that would be held near the time of the forum.
Scott Melendez, a gay 42-year-old Washington resident who was once underwent reparative therapy, said it was “worrisome” that licensed psychiatrists would have a dialogue with figures associated with reparative therapy because it legitimizes views on sexual orientation that APA repudiated long ago.
“It gives these people a platform to try and, I think, sway and frankly confuse people as to what the facts are,” Melendez said.
Melendez formerly participated in Bible study, prayer and fasting to attempt to overcome his homosexuality. In 1985, while living in Phoenix, he joined Homosexuals Anonymous, hoping it would be the ticket to change. But while participating in program activities, he noticed that he and his fellow
members were “just as gay then as the day they walked through the door.”
Melendez has since reconciled his religion with his sexual orientation.
“The bottom line is there in no problem with being gay and being a Christian,” he said.
While critics are attacking the concept of having a dialogue with individuals associated with reparative therapy, Throckmorton, one of those scheduled to speak, is defending his views. Throckmorton, a counselor in Grove City, Pa., said the symposium is about “recognizing that there are various religious views on sexuality” and that mental health workers need to be “respectful of religious differences” when treating clients.
“This symposium is an academic conversation about how can mental health professionals take those views seriously, how can we work with clients who have a variety of often differing religious views … to best pursue their individual goals,” he said.
Throckmorton intends to advocate a concept he calls “sexual identity therapy.” The concept takes into account how some gay men choose to be married to women and fall in love with them.
“They’re making behavioral choices to live a heterosexual life as opposed to actually experiencing huge shifts in their more general sexual orientation,” he said.
Throckmorton says he worked with more than 250 individuals “who have sought assistance to alter homosexual feelings or behaviors.”
He cited a case of a 24-year-old man who came to him with an anxiety disorder. It was revealed that the source of his anxiety “was confusion surrounding his sexual orientation.” Throckmorton says therapy was “not focused on conversion but rather on self-understanding and social assertiveness.” By talking about his sexual feelings, the patient’s anxiety subsided and “the homosexual feelings faded, replaced by heterosexual dreams and crushes on female co-workers,” Throckmorton said.
Throckmorton cited another case in which he claims a 23-year-old gay man was treated for anxiety with Phenelzine. After two months, the man “began dating women exclusively, enjoyed intercourse and expressed no sexual interest in men.”
Throckmorton told the Blade he does not believe that treating someone with anti-anxiety medication will convert his or her sexual orientation.
Besen said Throckmorton’s entire career has been “degrading” to gay people and based on “trying to stop them … from having sex or being in long-term loving relationships.”
“Throckmorton talks the talk of someone who’s reasonable, but his record is quite radical,” Besen said.
Throckmorton does not have a license for counseling in Pennsylvania, the state where he resides. He said he does not have a license because such credentials are not necessary to practice counseling in the state and because he now spends his time exclusively as a professor at Grove City College, a religious school. Throckmorton also said he has licenses in two other states.
Mohler, the other controversial figure slated to appear at the panel, did not respond to interview requests.
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