PHOENIX — Michael Brown took the dais in a sterile Marriott ballroom last fall, beaming for the 40 or so therapists who form the devout core of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH).
With a hulking frame packed tightly into a three-button black suit, one of the nation’s most vociferous anti-gay activists began his speech with a dire warning.
The “homosexual agenda” is on the march, he said, and shows no signs of slowing. Gay rights activists, aggressively working to undermine Christian values and the traditional family, have infiltrated the nation’s schools, civic centers and places of worship. The war for the heart of the country is on.
“We need you. I need you,” pleaded the guest speaker, author of the 2011 self-published book A Queer Thing Happened to America. Brown added, “You may be condemned today, but you will be commended tomorrow.”
The urgency was not lost on the therapists in the room, an embattled group that finds itself struggling against a powerful tide of public opinion and accusations that it has produced faulty research to support an anti-gay agenda.
Billing itself as the counterweight to the two most prominent mental health authorities — the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — NARTH pushes the idea, with the zeal of a religious movement, that no one is born gay and that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed through what is known as “reparative” or “conversion” therapy, also commonly called “ex-gay” therapy. At the heart of this argument is the belief that homosexuality is an unnatural deviation from normal sexual development, a form of mental disorder.
With these views, NARTH has emerged as the preeminent source of what many regard as “junk science” for the religious right — psychology that underpins the anti-gay movement’s fervent opposition to equal rights and stigmatizes LGBT people as mentally sick.
Without the research NARTH provides, there are few avenues remaining for the religious right to condemn homosexuality, at a time when the American public is growing more accepting of LGBT people and more open to extending equal rights to same-sex couples.
But even as NARTH is held up as an authority
on the science of homosexuality by both fringe groups and politically potent national organizations like the Family Research Council, its claim that LGBT people can be “cured” of
their homosexuality is not backed by the evidence.
In fact, every major American medical authority has concluded that there is no scientific support for NARTH’s view, and many have expressed concern that reparative therapy can cause harm. Most strikingly, in 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) stated: “There
is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be
changed.” The APA added, “Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
And flourish it has.
The LGBT community is overwhelmingly the group most targeted in violent hate crimes, according to an Intelligence Report analysis of 14 years of federal hate crime data. Gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.
Despite this hate-inspired violence, anti-gay groups continue to employ virulent rhetoric that demonizes gay men and lesbians, some of it based on NARTH’s research. This strategy of using science, however flawed, to fortify their religious condemnation of homosexuality was articulated five years ago by the Family Research Institute’s Paul Cameron, a psychologist whose research has been thoroughly discredited by mainstream scientists.
“We can no longer rely — as almost all pro-family organizations do today — on gleaning scientific ‘bits’ from those in liberal academia. … [W]e must subvert the academy by doing original, honest research ourselves,” Cameron wrote.
Original, maybe. But honest? NARTH’s many critics argue otherwise.
The ‘Purple Menace’
Like many anti-gay activists, NARTH claims that homosexuality is caused by psychological trauma or some other aberration in childhood. Its founding was rooted in a nearly 40-year-old schism that rocked the psychiatric community.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the compendium of known mental disorders. Not all therapists agreed with the decision. Among them were Charles Socarides, Joseph Nicolosi and Benjamin Kaufman, who formed NARTH in 1992 to confront the growing acceptance of homosexuality.
These dissidents believed that the official recognition of homosexuality as a natural variant in human development was a travesty and most certainly the product of an insidious plot now widely derided as the “homosexual agenda.”
As Kaufman wrote in an essay published at the time, the mission of their brave new collective was to “understand the homosexual condition and the factors which drive this self-destructive behavior.” NARTH was a strategic answer to a division that pitted socially conservative therapists against their progressive counterparts.
Socarides, a psychoanalyst and the most famous of NARTH’s founders, had gained prominence in the 1960s for his view that homosexuality was a treatable mental illness.
“Socarides offered the closest thing to hope that many homosexuals had in the 1960s: the prospect of a cure,” The New York Times wrote three years after NARTH was formed.
In his book Homosexuality: A Freedom Too Far, Socarides explained that same-sex attraction
was a “neurotic adaptation” that could be traced to “smothering mothers and abdicating fathers.”
Not only did he believe that LGBT people could be cured, he thought they should be cured.
When speaking to The Washington Post in 1997, he offered a startlingly grim forecast of what he feared acceptance of gays and lesbians would bring. “Homosexuality is a psychological and psychiatric disorder, there is no question about
it,” Socarides claimed. “It is a purple menace
that is threatening the proper design of gender distinctions and society.”
While Socarides, NARTH’s first president, died
of cardiac arrest in 2005, his sentiments
continue to guide the group. Nicolosi, who became president, shared his predecessor’s views, seeing his work in the vein of psychotherapists such as Sigmund Freud, whose work dealt with sexual paraphilias (commonly thought of as perversions). A devout Catholic and endlessly confrontational, Nicolosi was once a spokesman for Focus on the Family, a powerhouse of the anti-gay religious right, and has been a tireless critic of conventional psychiatric thought for most of his career.
In 2009, he asserted that “if you traumatize a child in a particular way, you will create a homosexual condition.” He also has repeatedly said, “Fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.” But his loathing for “the homosexual condition” goes even deeper.
In his book A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, which he wrote with his wife in 2002, Nicolosi offered a perspective on homosexuality that seemed to position NARTH closer to the anti-gay activists of the religious right.
“Traditionalists wince at the mental images conjured up by the thought of what homosexuals do in the act of intercourse,” he wrote. “Almost feeling guilty about their visceral reaction, they still cannot help but see such acts as perverse and, in fact, unnatural.”
When the book was published, there was no need for Nicolosi to court the “traditionalists” who opposed homosexuality. Many had already come calling.
Though some anti-gay groups have moderated their positions on homosexuality, and a number of reparative therapists have recanted their beliefs, NARTH remains a bastion of hard-core activists who have dug in even as they are being politically marginalized.