In its strongest statement on the subject to date, the American Psychological Association concluded this week that it is not possible to change a person's sexual orientation from gay to straight, and that, in fact, attempting to do so may have seriously adverse psychological consequences.
The APA has a record of openly criticizing so-called reparative therapy, a practice conducted by therapists often allied with religious groups that consider homosexuality a sin. But this panel's report and the subsequent guidelines voice a new commitment to ending the practice. The APA's Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation reached its conclusion based on a lengthy (137-page) review of over 80 studies conducted from 1960 to 2007. They found an overall abysmal state of research, with "serious methodological problems" in most of the studies. The reputable studies, they found, overwhelmingly show that long-term change in a person's sexual orientation is "uncommon." Those who underwent such therapies frequently reported subsequent difficulties, including loss of sexual feeling, suicidality, depression and anxiety. As a result of these findings, the group passed a resolution warning its over 150,000 members not to advise clients to attempt to use therapy to change their sexual orientation.
"Contrary to claims of sexual orientation change advocates and practitioners, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation," said Judith M. Glassgold, chairwoman of the task force that presented the report at the group's annual meeting in Toronto, Canada. "At most, certain studies suggested that some individuals learned how to ignore or not act on their homosexual attractions. Yet, these studies did not indicate for whom this was possible, how long it lasted or its long-term mental health effects. Also, this result was much less likely to be true for people who started out only attracted to people of the same sex."
Why do people even try this hopeless task? The APA's task force listed conflict with religious beliefs as a frequent cause, and advised that therapists "explore possible life paths that address the reality of [clients'] sexual orientation, reduce the stigma associated with homosexuality, respect the client's religious beliefs, and consider possibilities for a religiously and spiritually meaningful and rewarding life." For some therapists, this may involve a serious change in working-methods. “Both sides have to educate themselves better," Ms. Glassgold said. “The religious psychotherapists have to open up their eyes to the potential positive aspects of being gay or lesbian. Secular therapists have to recognize that some people will choose their faith over their sexuality.”
All we can say is that it's about time.