Late this summer, the American Psychological Association voted to denounce the practice of treating clients to change their sexual orientation, typically just from gay, lesbian, or bisexual to heterosexual. It also declared this form of therapy to be harmful to individuals’ mental health.
The American Psychological Association And Sexuality
The APA has not always had the greatest reputation with respect to sexuality. Until 1973, the organization’s primary guide for diagnosing mental illness, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), defined homosexuality as a mental illness. Under pressure from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, APA moved to take homosexuality out of the DSM.
Since then, the APA has become a greater supporter of LGBT people and critic of homophobia, producing research that highlights homophobia’s negative impact in the mental health of LGBT people (e.g., bans on same-sex marriage). This latest step to denounce the practice of “reparative” or “conversion therapy” further establishes the organization as an ally of LGBT people.
Due to the intense prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people in the United States and worldwide, many find the idea of converting their sexual orientations to heterosexual appealing; they see life as much easier and better if they were not lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
A number of groups, mostly religious, have promoted the practice of conversion therapy, claiming to offer those who are unhappy with their sexual orientations to find a better life. They even promote a high success rate of such treatment, though their methods of research tend not to go through the rigorous, peer-reviewed standards of most social science research.
Most research has found that such treatments do not actually work and can have harmful effects on clients of such treatment, thus leading the APA to call for the end of such practices.
Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?
The origins of sexuality, whether bisexual, homosexual, or heterosexual, are still not yet fully known. Sexual orientation is complex, but what is known indicates that sexuality is not chosen, nor can it be changed.
The supposed success rate of conversation therapy really indicates the ability for individuals to suppress their sexual desires, not to change them. I suspect that our sexual orientations are developed from both biological and social sources. After all, same-sex sexuality, relationships, and desires have always existed, just like those that are different-sex, but gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual sexual identities have not.
(In Ancient Greece, men who had sex with men did not identify as gay, nor bisexual or straight – it is only in the twentieth century that we began to take on a social sexual identity in the Western world, and now more globally. And, now, it appears that the links among sexual desire, sexual behavior, and sexual identity are becoming even looser.)
Now that the APA has taken this step to cease efforts to change individuals’ sexualities, we need to move forward in diagnosing homophobia as an illness that plagues our society.
In many cases, I would argue, it is not a problem of the individual, but rather a problem of society. This logic applies to the classification of “gender identity disorder”, what psychologists call the condition transgender people face in the mismatch between their gender and their biological sex, as a disorder. In this case it’s not considered a mental disorder, but rather a disorder of the body.
For many, treatment is sought through counseling, changing one’s gender expression (e.g., clothing, name, mannerisms) and possibly one’s sex through hormone treatments and surgery. But, I see the larger problem lying in society’s rigid gender norms and expectations. As a sociologist and an activist, my ideal world is one in which we no longer fix the individual’s mind and body to address problems of society.