With President-Elect Donald Trump and his running mate, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, about to take office, much has been said about, among other issues, each man’s policies and opinions affecting LGBTQ citizens. During his first successful run for congress in 2000, for example, one of many statements Pence added to his website under the heading “Strengthening the American Family” included, “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Taken from within the context of Pence’s other anti-gay rhetoric, as well as his subsequent 2015 “religious freedom” bill, which would have allowed businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians based on religious beliefs, it is not difficult to interpret Pence’s comments as endorsing the practice of “conversion therapy”—that is, therapies aimed at trying to “change” a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
The fact remains today: every leading psychological and psychiatric organization has denounced conversion therapy, and laws banning its practice on minors have been passed in recent years both in the United States and in Canada. In 2015, President Obama condemned the practice of these therapies, and up until the recent election at least, efforts were well underway to classify conversion therapy as a fraudulent practice and illegal under the Federal Trade Commission Act. As someone who has actually lived through the experience of “conversion therapy,” I find it deeply troubling that the next Vice President of the United States would have ever endorsed therapies that the World Health Organization has said, “lack medical justification and threaten health.” The Offices of the President and Vice President of the United States of America set the tone on the world political stage. Even affirming the notion that “gays can change” potentially strengthens a kind of homophobic ideology that gives rise to violence against gays everywhere—between doctor and patient, teacher and student, parent and child, classmates and friends—and not only in the United States of America. Gays cross borders.
The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, forthcoming on May 16, 2017, by Brown Paper Press, is about my own six-years in this therapy and, later, medical malpractice suit against my former psychiatrist for treating my sexuality in an effort to “change” me from homosexual to heterosexual. In our relatively pro-LGBTQ, culturally sophisticated Western world, many people may not believe that these kinds of therapies actually still exist. The truth is, I had not initially sought help to try and change my sexual orientation; rather, I began psychotherapy with a licensed psychiatrist after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. I was young, depressed, and isolated—as so many young gay people often are—and in need of help. I trusted Dr. Alfonzo.
Homosexuality itself was declassified as a mental illness and removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973. Despite such progress, many forms of conversion therapy, usually bible-based (“pray away the gay”), have persisted through the years. My own treatment was neither religious-based, nor endorsed by any specific psychiatric community: instead, Dr. Alfonzo simply took it upon himself to try and “cure” me of what he considered to be the “error” of my homosexuality—he prescribed massive amounts of multiple psychiatric medications, used aversive techniques, and generally contextualized my entire life history (my “problems”) in an effort to convince me that I really was heterosexual.
“Conversion therapy,” as an umbrella term signifying a vast array of therapies aimed at “curing homosexuality,” was actually created decades ago by, and from within, an anti-gay-rights movement aimed at affirming and endorsing psychiatry’s long-held belief of homosexuality as a mental illness in need of “change.” In other words, though the American Psychiatric Association’s official policies may have changed, its homophobic legacies have lived on in the hearts of some who still treat gays as “disordered.” Changing laws or official policies is not the same as changing hearts. The term “conversion therapy” is, in truth, a misnomer—since nothing, in reality, is ever “converted” during the course of these treatments. Even the alternately used term “reparative therapy” inaccurately describes what I now consider to be more like a psychic lobotomy, where the “surgeon” probes into the psycho-sexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the establishment of a different sexuality, while the “patient,” severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency. Patients of these therapies who do claim to have “changed” their sexual orientation typically later admit to mean that they have merely learned to control their sexual behavior—they “become” heterosexual in as much as they learn to partner with a member of the opposite sex. For “ex-gays,” words like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are less descriptors of erotic desire as they are mutable social identities. “Change,” for ex-gays, is taxonomical.
The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir is a personal story about my own, honest experience in one of these kinds of “therapy,” but its themes are universal: generational trauma, childhood sexual abuse, powerlessness in the face of adversity, self-acceptance, identity, the resilience of the human spirit, and the recognition that we have within each of us a core essence that cannot be killed, or “changed.”