Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Perhaps you missed the point?

William Saletan has a piece over at Slate on Robert Spitzer's research on reparative therapy (which attempts to change the orientation of participants from gay to straight), and his recent apology and apparent retraction. It's intriguingly entitled "Fifty Shades of Gay: In the political war over ex-gay conversion therapy, sexually conflicted people get trampled," which makes you think "oh, maybe here's a new angle on some aspects of this issue we've been overlooking," right? Except wrong.
Saletan notes that Spitzer's research was initially embraced by conservative religious and political groups who wished to eradicate homosexuality, but now his apology and retraction has been embraced by gay rights groups and others who wish to eradicate reparative therapy. According to Saletan, all this eradicating talk needs to stop already. And here's where things get a little fuzzy. Apparently we need to stop talking about eradicating reparative therapy because there are many individuals on the fringes of homosexuality - who feel conflicted or don't neatly fit into the gay/straight binary - and for them this whole reparative therapy might be effective. Correct me if I'm reading him wrong, but I'm pretty sure that's what he's saying.

Now I'm totally on board with two of Saletan's claims. I wholeheartedly agree that the whole gay/straight binary has gots to go. So does the male/female binary, the virgin/slut binary, and a whole lotta other binaries that we ♥ so much in our culture. I think we can generally agree that binaries with rigid boundaries and harmful social policing need to be replaced with flexible identities and open continuums on which people can express themselves and live their lives in the ways that are most fulfilling to them. I'm also totally on board with Saletan's resistance to the urge to overgeneralize and speak for/conceptualize/attempt to treat groups rather than individuals. No group is monolithic, no two people are the same, etc. Agreed.

But here's where Saletan's argument goes chattering off course so very dangerously. In fact, it is not problematic to attempt to eradicate things in general. Some thing just need to be eradicated. Things like hatred and abuse and oppression. Genocide could be eradicated, and I think we would all agree that the world was better for it. So this blanket prohibition of eradicating things seems a little counterproductive, to say the least.

And this points to a further problem with Saletan's argument. Saletan works from the assumption that homosexuality is not political, it's personal. And maybe in some cultural framework that could be true, but it's certainly not true in ours. Sexual orientation and gender presentation are profoundly political, because we make them political. We distribute opportunities and respect and social power and protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender presentation. We view these things as fundamental to one's identity, and identity is key to so many social and economic aspects of a person's life that that they simply can't be depoliticized. Like it or not, sexual orientation is political.

But beyond these issues, it seems like an important question has gone unasked here. It appears that Saletan is claiming that the fact that reparative theory can in theory be effective for those who are just a little bit gay to begin with (this is a great illustration of the problem with binary thinking and language in itself) means we should salvage it and continue the practice. The idea is, if you're not super hardcore gay, you might be able to become kinda sorta straight after therapy. But the real question that must be addressed regarding reparative therapy is why we want to change people's orientations to begin with. Even if you are in one of those shades of gray that doesn't fit neatly into a box, should we want to alter you in such a way that you do fit in the right box? Even if it makes you sad, or results in you living a life of celebacy and shame? Even if it makes you spend a lot of time thinking about killing yourself?

The point is, we have lots of reasons not to support the practice of reparative therapy, and a number of compelling reasons to work to end the practice, that go well beyond the possibility that it might be effective on a very small population of individuals. To begin with, there are the mountains of testimonials from individuals who were traumatized by reparative therapy. But beyond that, there's the harm contained in the very message that the existence of the therapy itself sends. To put it simply, it says being gay is bad and being straight is good. And there's no coherent way to refute this. Imagine if I started a program that promised to turn left-handed people into right-handed people. No doubt you would ask "what's wrong with being left-handed?" The point is, you cannot offer a cure for a condition without also implying that there's something wrong with having that condition to begin with.

So I agree with Saletan that we need to always consider and include those who don't fall neatly into one of two boxes. I agree with him that we can't act as if groups of people are monolithic. That's what queer politics is all about. That's what countless activists and theorists are advocating every day. But preserving a form of therapy that was coercive and harmful from the beginning does nothing to further that end.


  1. I'm never quite sure what to make of Saletan. Sometimes he has makes these really nice critiques of things, and I totally agree with him. Other times it's like "is this the same guy?"

  2. If the only criteria for therapy programs and methodologies was whether or not they accomplish their stated goal, then Saletan might have a good argument here. This framework wouldn't extend to questions about what types of goals are acceptable within a therapy context. But I think you're right that a responsible approach will have to include questions about the underling goals and motivations of therapy, as well as the actual impact on the individuals involved in the therapy.

    In this case I wouldn't say the therapy is the problem - it's a symptom of the problem. But it goes without saying that responsible professionals should not allow therapy to be used as a tool within oppressive and damaging systems.

    1. Yes. I agree. And I think you actually may have articulated my issue with the whole thing better than I did.

      The thing is, isn't therapy always going to take place within a cultural framework which will have goals that are determined by the outlook and values of that culture? In which case there will always be some elements of the power structure of that culture inherent in the therapeutic environment.