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Just What Is 'Reparative' Therapy For Gay People?

The Texas Republican Party made headlines when it included an endorsement of something called “reparative therapy”in its party platform. Supporters say the therapy can “cure” people of being gay. But the practice is extremely controversial, unaccredited and banned for minors in a couple states.

If you've paid any attention to the topic over the last couple of weeks, you've seen dozens of stories and even a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart talking about what reparative therapy is. The descriptions often mention aversion therapies, aimed at pairing homosexual feelings with something unwanted or painful, like electric shock.

"It's stuff that's cherry picked that's used to put great fear into people," says David Pickup, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Dallas area who offers reparative therapy. Pickup is a member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).

The group's executive director, David Pruden, says reparative therapy is no different than other therapies.

"People seek counseling, they go to a therapist because something is distressing them," he says. "Therapists that I work with and we work with here at NARTH are simply therapists who are willing to acknowledge the belief that people's homosexual feelings are, in some cases, unwanted and unwelcome in their lives."

But those opposed to reparative therapy say that's missing the underlying point. Jeff Lutes, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, has organized conferences for people who’ve gone through reparative therapy or "ex-gay" ministries.

"Gay people don't come to a therapist and say, 'Internally, I don't feel right and I'm unhappy being gay,'" Lutes says. "It's always rooted in lack of acceptance, rejection by church and family."

The American Psychological Association has discredited the practice. And Lutes says no matter what method the therapy uses, it's still damaging because it pushes the idea that being normal means being heterosexual – which he says can lead to more depression and even suicidal thoughts when  therapy isn't successful.

"Without that problem there is no reparative therapy," he says. "It's the underlying belief that one needs to be or should be straight that is really the root of the problem."

Pruden says that's not what he believes –  while he does believe people can change their sexual orientation, that doesn't mean everyone should.

"A lot of people who walk through the door and say, 'Gee, I want to get rid of these homosexual attractions,' may decide after a few months of working through some of their anxieties and worries and other things that frankly they're very happy being gay," Pruden says. "And that's maybe what they really want to do. And that would be just as successful an outcome as a person who might make a different decision."

But there it is again –  the belief that being gay is a decision. That belief is now officially supported by the Republican Party of Texas platform. And it was embraced last weekby Gov. Rick Perry at an event in California, when he compared being gay to alcoholism – a statement Pruden agrees with.

"He was saying, 'Yeah, I don't know why a person is an alcoholic. I don't know why a person's a homosexual. But we all have the ability to choose and to work with and to seek health with those issues and those concerns in our life,'" Pruden says. "And I think he's dead right. I think he's exactly right."

Pruden also thinks the Republican Party of Texas was right to endorse the therapy, as groups opposing it have been pushing laws banning the therapy for minors.

Pickup says similar legislation is expected in the 2015 Texas Legislative session. He says the ban doesn't protect a child from harmful therapy; instead, it prevents a child who has been sexually abused and may have begun having homosexual feelings from the abuse, from getting help.

"I have to actually literally tell him, 'Sorry I can't help you, maybe when you're 18 we can work on those homosexual desires.' In my opinion that is emotionally and sexually abusive," Pickup says.

Would a conservative Texas Legislature pass such a ban? If Republicans sweep this November's elections and considering the support of such therapy in the party platform, maybe not.

But GOP state party Chairman Steve Munisteri said this week he personally doesn’t agree with the platform plank. And that just because it made it in the party platform, doesn't mean a majority of Republicans agree.

But then again, isn't that what a party platform is supposed to mean?

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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