USA Today published an opinion piece defending the discredited, degrading, and ineffective practice of "conversion therapy" for gays.
In a July 30 op-ed column, Nicholas Cummings, who led the American Psychological Association (APA) from 1979 to 1980, criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for filing a consumer fraud lawsuit in New Jersey against the "ex-gay" therapy organization Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH). Cummings asserted that many gays and lesbians have been "successful" in changing their sexual orientation through therapy:
When I was chief psychologist for Kaiser Permanente from 1959 to 1979, San Francisco's gay and lesbian population burgeoned. I personally saw more than 2,000 patients with same-sex attraction, and my staff saw thousands more. We worked hard to develop approaches to meeting the needs of these patients.
They generally sought therapy for one of three reasons: to come to grips with their gay identity, to resolve relationship issues or to change their sexual orientation. We would always inform patients in the third group that change was not easily accomplished. With clinical experience, my staff and I learned to assess the probability of change in those who wished to become heterosexual.
Of the roughly 18,000 gay and lesbian patients whom we treated over 25 years through Kaiser, I believe that most had satisfactory outcomes. The majority were able to attain a happier and more stable homosexual lifestyle. Of the patients I oversaw who sought to change their orientation, hundreds were successful.
As Cummings acknowledges, his views run contrary to the APA's strong opposition to "ex-gay" therapy, which the organization describes as harmful and scientifically unsound. Even psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer, who has long been one of the leading figures in "ex-gay" therapy, has recanted his earlier views about the mutability of sexual orientation. In 2012, he described his shift in an interview with The American Prospect:
I asked about the criticisms leveled at [Spitzer]. "In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct," he said. "The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more." He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)
Spitzer said that he was proud of having been instrumental in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Now 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others. He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attractions "can be quite harmful." [emphasis added]
The tactics employed by JONAH make clear why Spitzer describes "conversion therapy" efforts as "harmful." In a press release announcing its lawsuit against JONAH, the SPLC detailed its cruel and humiliating forms of "therapy":
Customers of JONAH's services typically pay a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions. The lawsuit describes sessions that involved clients undressing in front of a mirror and even a group session where young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, [Alan] Downing, who was also undressed. Another session involved a subject attempting to wrest away two oranges, which were used to represent testicles, from another individual.
"Sadly, there is no accountability for those who practice conversion therapy," said Michael Ferguson, a conversion therapy survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit. "They play blindly with deep emotions and create an immense amount of self-doubt for the client. They seize on your personal vulnerability, and tell you that being gay is synonymous with being less of a man. They further misrepresent themselves as having the key to your new orientation."
Downing and other counselors at JONAH also use techniques that leave clients alienated from their families. These techniques encourage clients to blame their parents for being gay. Clients even participate in violent role play exercises where they beat effigies of their mothers.
"These counselors are skilled at manipulating you into believing just about anything," said Benjamin Unger, another plaintiff in the case. "During my time with JONAH, they told me constantly that my mom had made me gay. I was so convinced that I refused to have any contact with her for several months, which caused a great deal of damage to our relationship." [emphasis added]
What makes Cummings's defense of JONAH's efforts particularly ironic is that in his op-ed, he reassures readers that he believes "[g]ays and lesbians have the right to be affirmed in their homosexuality." That view is difficult to square with Cummings's support of JONAH, which reinforces the stigmatization and bullying of gays and lesbians, teaching its patients that homosexuality is something to be ashamed of.
Unsurprisingly, anti-gay organizations like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) have vigorously defended JONAH's efforts. That USA Today joined the likes of NOM and fringe anti-gay activist Bryan Fischer in touting JONAH speaks ill of the op-ed pages' editorial standards.