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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)

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PFOX, founded seven years ago to counter PFLAG -- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- was active in the recent battle over sex education in Montgomery County. Central to the dispute was the way homosexuality would be taught.

As a result of a lawsuit, PFOX has won a seat on the board that will help rewrite the health curriculum, and its officials say they plan to push for inclusion of reparative therapy.

Reparative therapists have their own organization, the 1,000-member California-based National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), founded in 1992. Its leaders often appear at "Love Won Out" workshops that draw more than 1,000 participants and are sponsored by Focus on the Family, a group founded by conservative psychologist James Dobson, a staunch opponent of gay rights who has ties to the Bush administration.

Mental health experts are alarmed by the resurgence of a treatment they say has been discredited.

In the view of Drescher, chair of the APA's committee on gay, lesbian and bisexual issues, reparative therapy's ascendance resembles the resurrection of creationism, a religious belief at odds with science that has been rechristened with the more scientific-sounding name "intelligent design."

"Many people who try this treatment tend to be desperate, very unhappy and don't know other gay people," said Drescher, who has treated about a dozen men who previously underwent conversion therapy. (Men are far more likely than women to receive the treatment.)

"I see people who've been very hurt by this," said Drescher, who said some people do manage to temporarily change their behavior, often by becoming celibate, but not their sexual orientation. "They spend years trying to change and are told they aren't trying hard enough."

Catherine Wulfensmith, 46, a family therapist in Monrovia, Calif., said she attempted suicide several times after reparative therapy failed to alter her attraction to women. "I bought it hook, line and sinker," she said. "If you don't change, what are you left with?"

The 'Fix'

Reparative therapy typically involves once- or twice-weekly psychotherapy sessions lasting a minimum of two years; it may be covered by insurance if it is listed as being for a "sexual disorder not otherwise specified." Patients are encouraged to delve into their childhood relationships, especially with the same-sex parent; to cultivate straight friends and "gender-appropriate" activities such as sports or sewing; and to avoid anything, or anyone, gay. Prayer is often recommended.

NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist in Encino, Calif., who coined the term reparative therapy and is one of its leading practitioners, emphatically rejects the view that it is ineffective and potentially damaging. He points to a study published in 2003 by Columbia University psychiatrist Robert L. Spitzer which found that therapy seemed to work for some highly motivated patients.

"It can only be damaging if the agenda of the therapist supersedes that of the patient," said Nicolosi, who added that it should never be forced on unwilling participants.

Although no rigorous outcome studies have been published, Nicolosi estimates that one-third of patients treated at the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, of which he is founding director, experience "significant improvement -- they understand their homosexuality and have some sense of control" but may still have gay sex. Another third, he said, are "cured": They don't have gay sex and the intensity and frequency of their same-sex desires is diminished, but not necessarily gone. The other third fail to change.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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