A Conversion Therapist's Unusual Odyssey
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
"I'm a heterosexual and I want to give somebody hope. I want to say, 'I did it, you can do it, too,' " said Richard A. Cohen, one of the best-known reparative therapists, who practices out of a book-lined office in his home in a modest Bowie neighborhood. Cohen, 52, identifies himself as a former homosexual. He lectures widely, has written three books and serves as president of Parents, Families and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX).
Articulate and engaging, Cohen has the sinewy build and erect carriage of the dancer he once was. He has been married for nearly 23 years -- an arranged marriage that he said was suggested by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon when he and his wife were members of the Unification Church, to which they belonged for 20 years.
The couple has three children, two of them students at the University of Pennsylvania, and a happy marriage that Cohen said belies their turbulent early years. He has been exclusively heterosexual since 1987, he said, and no longer feels attracted to men, only to women.
"I have a sense of great inner peace about who I am," something Cohen said he is trying to help others achieve.
Cohen has a master's degree in counseling psychology from a satellite campus of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He conducts individual therapy at a cost of $150 for an hour-long session, as well as telephone classes for "strugglers" and their relatives. He also runs seminars and workshops, at which he sells his books, two of them self-published and one for children who think they might be gay, as well as tapes and CDs. All of his work, he said, is conducted under the auspices of the International Healing Foundation, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization he founded in 1990 to treat what he calls unwanted SSA -- same-sex attraction.
He is not licensed as a therapist, he explained, because he "didn't want to jump through the hoops and deal with the heterophobia and anti-ex-gay attitudes." He circumvents the licensing requirement by asking for donations to his foundation. "I am not doing therapy per se," he said. "I'm coaching."
In 2002, Cohen was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association (ACA) for multiple ethical violations.
Permanent expulsion is a rarely used sanction, according to David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the Alexandria-based organization. Kaplan said Cohen was found to have violated six sections of the ACA's ethics code, which bars members from actions that "seek to meet their personal needs at the expense of clients," those that exploit "the trust and dependency of clients," and for soliciting testimonials or promoting products in a deceptive manner.
Cohen said his expulsion was based on a complaint by a client who told the ACA he felt forced to attend Cohen's classes, buy his books, volunteer to work for his foundation and talk about his personal experiences.
Cohen said he did not contest his expulsion. "Why would I want to be in a totally gay-affirming club?" he asked during a nearly three-hour interview in his office.
His therapy, much of which is derived from his own experience, is outlined in the 273-page book he wrote in 2000 entitled "Coming Out Straight," the foreword of which is written by radio personality Laura Schlessinger, who has called gays "deviants" and "biological errors."
Raised in an affluent Jewish family in a Philadelphia suburb, Cohen describes himself as the sensitive, artistic youngest child of a clinging mother and a domineering, workaholic father who ignored him -- the typical triad that causes homosexuality, he says. Adoption, divorce, "intrauterine experiences," unresolved family conflict, the media and being shorter, skinnier or larger than average are among a myriad of factors that in Cohen's view contribute to same-sex attraction.
A turning point in his life, Cohen said, occurred when he was 6, an event he repressed until he was 30 and in therapy. A family friend repeatedly molested him, Cohen said, providing the affection he craved from his father.
Although his parents accepted his homosexuality, Cohen said he spent years in intensive psychiatric treatment unsuccessfully trying to become straight. While an undergraduate at Boston University, he followed his boyfriend into evangelical Christianity and later joined the Unification Church, where he said, he remained celibate for long periods.
In 1982 he married, but his attraction to men "came back in Technicolor," he said. Although he became the father of two small children, Cohen said he spent three years running around New York with a boyfriend. "I hung out with the best of them," he recalled.
At the same time, he added, "I really wanted my marriage. I had a dream to be married to a woman and have children."
In 1987, Cohen said, he overcame his homosexuality with the help of an intense but platonic relationship with a straight man who "gave me the warmth of my daddy's love." Cohen said the man served as a mentor, enabling him to forgive his father, relinquish his guilt about being molested and rid himself of same-sex attraction.
As part of his treatment, Cohen advises patients to pray, exercise regularly and undergo "behavioral and gesture reeducation" in which they practice acting more conventionally masculine. He also endorses a technique using "bioenergetics" in which a client releases pent-up anger by smashing a tennis racket against a mound of pillows while repeatedly screaming "Dad" -- or the name of the person about whom the client has unresolved feelings. This, Cohen said, is how he recovered his repressed memories of sexual abuse.
Touch plays a central role in his therapy, said Cohen, who does not treat women. He recommends that clients develop intimate friendships with heterosexual mentors who will cuddle them in a parental, nonerotic way, making up for the love they did not get from their fathers.
"You've got to feel it to heal it," he said. ·