Vowing to Set the World Straight

Reparative therapist Richard A. Cohen, pictured with his wife Jae Sook Cohen and 10-year-old son Alfred at their home in Bowie, says he overcame his homosexuality in 1987 and wants to help other gays
Reparative therapist Richard A. Cohen, pictured with his wife Jae Sook Cohen and 10-year-old son Alfred at their home in Bowie, says he overcame his homosexuality in 1987 and wants to help other gays "go straight." "I want to say, 'I did it, you can . . . too.' " (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Nicholas Cavnar said he tried everything he could think of in his 30-year quest to become heterosexual. He spent years in therapy, paying thousands of dollars for treatment designed to overcome his homosexuality. He faithfully attended meetings of Christian self-help groups for "strugglers." He married and fathered three children, a metamorphosis featured on the cover of a Catholic magazine.

Yet every day, the 54-year-old Washington publishing executive recalled, he had to suppress his deepest feelings about who he really was -- emotions he thought he had left behind at 20 when, to the delight of his devout family, he abruptly renounced his openly gay life in San Francisco.

Three years ago, Cavnar said, after soul-searching prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he decided his days of "white-knuckling it" were over. "I told my wife I couldn't not be gay anymore," recalled Cavnar. His biggest regret, he said, was the devastating impact ending their 26-year marriage had on the woman who had struggled with him.

Cavnar's odyssey -- from gay to ex-gay to ex-ex-gay -- is inextricably linked to his long involvement in reparative therapy, a controversial form of psychotherapy aimed at making gays straight.

While its supporters cite success stories from their clinical practices as well as a recent and much debated study showing that conversion therapy can work, the treatment is opposed by virtually every medical and mental health organization, including the American Medical Association, the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.

Until the early 1990s the treatment, also known as reorientation therapy, was largely relegated to religious groups or to the fringes of mental health. Mainstream therapists have been taught to help patients distressed about their homosexuality work toward self-acceptance, to overcome the internalized homophobia thought to be the cause of much emotional turmoil.

Reparative therapists reject the views held by an overwhelming majority of mental health practitioners. They regard homosexuality as a pathological preference forged in the crucible of a troubled childhood and not, as most scientists believe, an inborn orientation significantly influenced by biological factors such as genetics and exposure to hormones in the womb.

"I don't think sexual orientation is genetically determined, but like a lot of preferences we have in life is a complicated and idiosyncratic mix of temperament and experience," said Warren Throckmorton, a supporter of reparative therapy who is an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and former president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. "The other reason I think change is possible is that I've worked with a lot of clients who've done it."

In the past decade, the growing influence of religious conservatives and the national debate over gay rights, especially gay marriage, has revived interest in the therapy, significantly raising its public profile, spawning new practitioners and igniting debate about a matter that had been considered settled, supporters and critics agree.

"Reparative therapy is the laetrile of mental health," said New York psychiatrist Jack Drescher, referring to the quack cancer cure banned in the United States in the 1970s.

To gay rights activist Wayne R. Besen, the author of "Anything But Straight," a 2003 book that tracks the history of ex-gay groups, the therapy is "a kinder, gentler form of homophobia. The argument has shifted from 'You're harming society' to 'You're harming yourselves.' "

The Campaign

Web sites with names like "inqueery" and "freetobeme" have sprung up, directing confused teenagers and frantic parents to reparative counselors. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), a national group headquartered in Fairfax County, has sponsored highway billboards in Rockville and Richmond that state "Ex-Gays Prove That Change Is Possible."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company