Should university LGBT centers refer students to ex-gay groups and conversion therapists if they ask for it, or do counselors have a responsibility to caution students against trying to change their sexual orientation? Colleges in Virginia seem to have opted for the latter, leading conversion advocates to call foul and say that schools have a burden to present “both sides” of the issue.
Christopher Doyle, founder of Voice of the Voiceless, an advocacy group for those who say they’ve become heterosexual through therapy, posed as a student conflicted about his sexuality at counseling offices and LGBT campus centers across the state in September. Counselors at the University of Virginia, George Mason University, Old Dominion University, and others, resisted even direct inquiries to be referred to any group espousing the view that sexual orientation is mutable, Doyle alleges.
“There’s a difference between being gay and having same-sex attraction,” Doyle told 429Magazine. “If someone is questioning their same-sex attraction, it’s just as inappropriate to try to affirm it for them as it would be to tell a gay person that they should try to change.” Doyle, who describes himself as a “former homosexual,” says that schools have a legal and ethical obligation to help students who want to change. “To not present these materials is viewpoint discrimination.”
Ric Chollar, director of the GMU campus LGBT resource center and the man who met with Doyle, told the campus newspaper that he did refer Doyle to an ex-gay group when asked. “I have [pamphlets]in my file drawer. He says he had to ask aggressively over and over again, but that’s not my memory at all.” Chollar conceded that the center offers such materials only on request. “What groups like his are demanding is that written information like this be displayed publicly. I admit that is not what we do.”
The heart of the matter is whether trying to change someone’s sexual orientation is safe, or even possible. Schools aren’t obligated to refer students to quacks, critics of conversion therapy argue.
The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Counseling Association, and World Health Organization all advise against any form of therapy aimed at changing a patient’s sexual orientation, but some doctors still practice and prescribe it.
“Enduring change to an individual’s sexual orientation is uncommon, and a very small minority of people showed any credible evidence of reduced same-sex sexual attraction,” the American Psychological Association said in a widely cited 2009 report. “Compelling evidence of decreased same-sex sexual behavior and increased attraction to and engagement in sexual behavior with the other sex was rare.” The report cautions that trying to change a patient’s orientation may cause emotional trauma.
Doyle points out that they only concluded that further research is needed both to decide the efficacy of the treatments and the potential for harm. He also alleges that such studies are riddled with bias. “All six members of that taskforce were gay,” Doyle says. “They’re going to try to find a way to argue that it doesn’t work.” Doyle cited the American Association of Christian Counselors and the National Association of Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, a group that promotes conversion therapy, for contrary research. The APA does not endorse those groups’ findings.
No one at any of the Virginia universities was available for comment except Virginia Commonwealth, who said only that they were referring the matter to their legal department.
Public universities in other states told 429Magazine that they do not recommend that students, even those conflicted about their orientation, undergo any program claiming to change or cure homosexuality. “We never provide reparative therapy, because being gay is not a mental disease,” says Cassandra Nichols, director of counseling at Washington State University “The APA has guidelines about this and we follow them. It would be unethical not to.”
If a student expressed a desire to change their orientation, Nichols says she would try to make them more comfortable with their feelings. She adds, “Professionally and personally, I’m disturbed this is an issue that’s still being raised.”
Gay reparative therapy is illegal for minors in California and New Jersey. Virtually all LGBT groups reject the practice. Groups like NARTH still insist that the treatment is safe and that people should have the right to choose to undergo it if they wish.