The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office organizes a groundbreaking discussion on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts!
Selling the Promise of Change: International Health and Policy Consequences of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE)
Jan 31st 1-3 @ United Nations Church Center
In the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition of spearheading, cutting edge advocacy and standing up for vulnerable populations, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) organized one of the first ever panel on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) and its International Human Rights consequences. Collaborating with the United Nations Non Governmental Organization’s (NGO) Committee for Human Rights and the NGO Committee on HIV/AIDS, The UU-UNO put together a panel of experts to present on this controversial issue, so it could be rigorously examined from different frameworks. The topic was reviewed from a medical, political, international, legal, academic, personal and religious perspective. This multiple systems approach resulted in a jammed packed program with six world renowned speakers, the reading of heartfelt personal letter, and a preview of a relevant film on the subject. Attendance at the event was standing room only, with audience participants from United Nations missions and agencies, religious organizations, and advocacy NGO’s .The feedback so far has been unbelievable; our office has been flooded with emails from organizations thanking us for hosting this historic event and wanting more programming. The event was covered in the national media on the Huffington Post and will be published as a collection of papers in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health.
RECAP of the Event:
The program began with a preview of the new feature length film God Loves Uganda. The film examines the role in which western Evangelicals play in spreading hate and intolerance in Uganda. Many of the key characters in the film, including Pastor Scott Lively have focused on the message that being gay is something that should be ‘cured’. The draconian “anti-gay” bill which calls for the death penalty for ‘serial’ homosexuals, currently being considered in the Ugandan parliament, was introduced just weeks after Lively and other Western religious leaders inundated Uganda with this SOCE propaganda. The film is an example of how treating homosexuality like a treatable disease can lead to international human rights violations. The UU-UNO plans to host a full screening of this fascinating film, followed by discussion of leading faith leaders about how we can use religion to combat intolerance and instead spread a gospel of love, understanding and acceptance.
UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts, who serves as the Chair of the UN NGO Committee for Human Rights, welcomed the full room and introduced the topic. He mentioned that had just returned from representing the UU-UNO at the Creating Change Conference in Atlanta, GA, the annual gathering of over 4000 LGBT Leaders, hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Knotts reported that the underlying theme of the conference was that LGBT leaders need to be on the forefront of all human rights initiatives, not just the ones that directly impact LGBT people. Economic equality, climate care, rights of women, treatment of indigenous people, and combating racial injustice are not peripheral to LGBT activism, they are essential to the movement. So the Committee for Human Rights and the UU-UNO see LGBT rights as integral to the United Nations concept of traditionally valued human rights. Our collective mission to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people, our planet and peace must include the treatment of sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT dignity and freedom is not just a question of fairness and safety, but an extension of the traditional values that Human Rights advocates uphold and fight for here at the UN and universally.
Bruce Knotts finished by sharing a personal story about when he was working as a U.S. diplomat in the 80’s, and the Department of State sent him to a psychologist “who was supposed to make me straight,”. Knotts told the audience, “I was with him three times a week for a year, and I didn’t notice any difference at all.” It reminded him about a corrupt dentist who used to charge insurance companies for unnecessary dental work. He noted that performing unneeded medical interventions when nothing is wrong with the client is corrupt; the same is true for mental health interventions. Knotts pointed out that the human rights issues become even more worrisome when these practices exploit vulnerable populations like LGBT religious youth or poor people in developing countries. This begs an ethical question that must be examined through the framework of international human rights. He concluded that this was why UN Civil society has gathered leaders from the medical, political, legal, religious and academic fields to tackle the topic.
Dr. Jack Drescher
The first Panelist was Dr. Jack Drescher. Dr. Drescher is a renowned Psychiatrist, a leader in the American Psychiatric Association, and the author of the APA’s position paper on conversion therapy. Drescher reviewed the history of the way homosexuality has been seen in the mental health community. He showed how Sigmund Freud was actually not a major proponent of curing homosexuality. He went over the change in the 1970’s when Homosexuality was taken out of the diagnostic manual as a mental illness, and established that today the establishment of Mental Health professionals does not see homosexuality as an illness. It was also reminded that weather homosexuality is genetic, hormonal, born this way, or psychodynamically influenced, nothing implies that it can be changed. There are many non-genetic processes that cannot be changed.
Dr. Drescher reviewed the few scientific studies on the matter, and showed how conversion therapy has very little, if not flawed, evidence behind it. With respect therapists that report that change is possible, Drescher argues that they have had over seventy years to prove their position in science and have not. Furthermore, even if some individuals can be receptive to change efforts, it would be impossible to scientifically select which clients would be receptive to such interventions and which clients would not…or worse yet, would be harmed. Drescher reminded the crowd that the bedrock of all medical and mental intervention is to first do no harm. He finished by warning against events that create the impression that there is a legitimate debate among mental health professionals concerning SOCE. “It’s not a debate in the profession, so why pretend that it is”.
The next speaker was Toiko Kleppe. Ms. Kleppe works for the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her presentation examined the human rights violations that take place in the name of SOCE. She began by reporting on the extreme practice of “Corrective Rape”, a barbaric practice where men target Queer or perceived queer women and rape them in the rational that the forced sexual act will somehow change their sexual orientation. Ms. Kleppe condemned these acts as reprehensible. She argued that there is nothing “corrective” about this process, and believes that it should really be seen as “punitive rape”. “This is a form of punishment and should be seen as orchestrated violence against women and the LGBT community”. Kleppe warned that there can be no tolerance for such behavior, and that countries that do not address these crimes violate basic human rights.With respect to voluntary SOCE therapy, Ms. Kleppe framed the human rights issue around the issue of consent. She stressed that concerns arise when dealing with children or populations under high pressures or duress. “If this process is forced on anyone, or involves anyone who does not have the ability to express full consent (like youth), then major human rights issues are violated, However, in cases where fully informed adults want to explore the fluidity of their own sexuality, SOCE can be consistent with human rights”. However, in terms of the values of the UN, Ms. Kleppe asserted, “What we’re really talking about here is creating a world and a society where sexual orientation change efforts are looked upon as ridiculous for LGBT people as they are for a heterosexual person…That is also a world that human rights law is in favor of.”
Sam Wolfe, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center who recently filed the first ever lawsuit against a conversion therapy organization, spoke next. Mr. Wolfe said that he has been focusing on conversion therapy for the past five years, because, “the anti-gay movement, in general, has really latched on to conversion therapy.” He framed SOCE as a way to invalidate the idea the LGBT rights are human rights. This argument has been touted by the Christian right, but also has been repeated by countries like Iran, Syria, Russia and Uganda. “The idea is that gay people are somehow broken, that we need to be fixed,” Wolfe explained. “You can see the line of reasoning: therefore we’re not entitled to equality under the law and we’re not due equal respect and to be treated well,”
Mr. Wolfe referred back to Bruce Knott’s earlier point about corruption and fraud. He raised the Human Rights issue of consumer fairness. Wolfe questioned the ethics of selling something that cannot be delivered. He made the argument that if no one has ever proven that sexuality can be changed through therapy, and if it, indeed cannot, how is it ethical to sell a product that does not exist? Wolfe reiterated that an extra layer of corruption potentates when well-funded organizations like the Mormon, catholic and evangelical churches spend millions perpetuating the myth that people can change. This may be because the idea that people can change fits better with church doctrine. “We have to follow the money”, Wolfe asserted, “This is a well-oiled, well-funded propaganda machine intent on selling a manufactured message that benefits the powerful on the backs of the vulnerable.” Wolfe ended with a plea to help and empower the victims of conversion therapy, many of whom are still suffering trauma and shame.
Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young
Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young, professor of Women’s Gender and Sexual Studies at Columbia University, presented on the subject from an academic perspective. She began by informing the audience of the often ignored academic research about women that consistently shows that for many women, sexuality does change over a lifetime. She reported that this research is often not popular and sometimes even de-funded because the message runs counter to the “Born This Way” narrative that gay rights activists tout. Dr. Young relayed that many women that she has interviewed say that sexuality was more fluid and even sometimes a choice for them. She qualified this by saying that she doubts that therapy had anything to do with changing sexual orientation, however,, to assert that it is unchanging does not reflect the reality of the experiences of women.
Dr. Young asserted that it is a mistake from a Human rights perspective, to rely upon the “born this way” narrative in order to argue for LGBT rights. “Why should medical professionals and scientists be needed to defend the freedom of someone to identify the way they choose?”, she questioned. Much like freedom of speech or freedom of religion is not contingent upon any biological component, freedom of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity (SOGI) should not have to be tied to genetics, hormones or mental health theories. Instead, the professor suggested that we abandon the argument that sexuality is not a choice. “Orientation can be both a right and a choice” she positioned. According to the Dr. Young, the concept of Identity is not something decided or worked on by medical or mental health professionals, it is a reflection of a how a person chooses to see him/herself in a world full of intersections and ambiguities. She concluded that this choice is a human right and should be universally protected.
The next speaker was Chaim Levin, a young man that went through years of conversion therapy and is now suing a ‘reparative’ therapy organization called JONAH for fraud and damages. Chaim shared his personal story with the audience. He talked about how he grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home where there seemed to be no real future for gay people. As a teenager, when he found out that the organization JONAH promised to help change him from gay to straight, he remembered feeling that he would do anything for this process to work. He and his parents spent thousands of dollars on JONAH referred life-coaches and experiential weekends. The consistent message that he heard was that there was something that went wrong in is life. His orientation was blamed on his relationship with his mother, his lack of masculinity, his lack of self-esteem, and even a lack of will to change. Despite a very real will to change, and substantial effort and money spent, there was never any change to Chaim’s desires or orientation.
Most disturbing was the incident that Chaim relayed happening in his last session with a JONAH counselor. He had been seeing a life coach with no professional mental health license. The life-coach himself admitted to being “ex-gay”. During a session with Chaim, the life-coach asked Chaim to remove all of Chaim’s clothing and stand in front of the life-coach naked grasping his genitalia. This non-scientific process was supposedly in order for Chaim to reconnect with his own masculinity. When Chaim hesitated to follow through, the life coach told him that he needed to do this in order to change from gay to straight. Not wanting to be blamed for his sexuality, Chaim eventually gave in to the pressure and removed his clothing like the life-coach requested. This incident severely traumatized Chaim. It was the last time he ever saw this life-coach or attended JONAH. The scars of this incident took years to heal, and even today Chaim suffers with the memories. Chaim told the crowd that this was not an isolated incident. “Since I have gone public with my story, many other young men have told me that the same thing happened to them in conversion therapy”, Chaim reported. Chaim ended with the hope that no young person should ever be put in his situation. He suggested a group called JQY, that helps support LGBT Jewish Youth and their families in the Orthodox community. The message in JQY is welcoming, acceptance and love. He wishes he could tell gay religious youth “ you are not broken, you are not dirty, you are beautiful just the way you are.”
Chaim was followed by the reading of a letter submitted by Jonathan, a young man living in Jerusalem, Israel. Jonathan is also part of the Orthodox Jewish Community, but has had a much more positive experience with sexual orientation conversion therapy. When Jonathan found out about this program he wanted his story to be heard. In the spirit of making sure that no voice was being silenced, it was decided to share Jonathan’s letter at the event.
Jonathan reported that in his early teenage years he felt that he was overwhelmed by what he described as “same sex attractions”. He wrote that these attractions caused him anxiety and depression. He wanted to explore the possibility of overcoming these attractions in the hope of leading a life more consistent with his values as an Orthodox Jew. These values included heterosexual marriage and children. Like Chaim Levin, he also went to the conversion therapy organization JONAH. He spent almost seven years seeing life-coaches and attending experiential weekends in the hopes of changing his sexual orientation. Unlike Chaim, Jonathan asserted that his orientation did change significantly. He shared that after seven years he felt much less attraction to men and a growing attraction to women. This change was not absolute, as he still feels some homosexual attraction, but argues that it is a gradual process with lots of shades of grey.
Now Jonathan is living in Israel with his wife of two years and his baby daughter. His wife knows about his struggle with same sex attractions, and has even joined him in some counseling sessions. Jonathan expresses that he is happy and fulfilled and very thankful to JONAH and the opportunity of conversion therapy. He claims to still be a proponent of LGBT rights and respects that for many LGBT people, SOCE efforts are not helpful. However, he insists that for him, they were helpful, and so it would be wrong to outlaw or eliminate SOCE organizations and counselors. His message to the audience was, “instead of criminalizing or eliminating SOCE, let’s work together to make SOCE better, more responsible, and less politicized”.
Pastor Jay Bakker
The last presenter of the program was Pastor Jay Bakker, of Revolution Church. Rev Bakker is the son of famed Televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. He grew up in the world of evangelicals and is proficient in the sentiments and language of Christian leaders. He described a faith based passion to ensure that the church become a helpful resource for LGBT people. Much like religion evolved on race and mixed race marriages, the pastor noted that despite specific versus, the bible’s arc overwhelmingly bends toward tolerance, understanding and love. He argued that the church can do so much good, but first must come to terms with the harm that it has been responsible for. He suggested that the initial step must be extensive dialogue. Creating this dialogue, he warned, is often the challenge.
Pastor Bakker shared his experience in talking with religious leaders about this topic. He reported that many influential church leaders are actually more progressive than their public stances suggest. Bakker described a fear that religious leaders have about how congregants would react to LGBT discussions. He relayed instances where his high level meetings with famous church leaders were suddenly canceled out of concern that it would become too public. Church leaders voiced that community members might be offended by bringing up LGBT issues like SOCE. Religious leaders make the argument that if they are publicly too progressive on LGBT issues, they would no longer have the influence or the ability to make an impact in conservative communities. Bakker repeated that it is still essential for religious leaders to hear the harm that SOCE causes. Consequently, Bakker urged that issues of sexual orientation and gender identity be brought up by community members and civil society. He pleads, “We have to change the culture of silence and silencing”, Bakker seemed worried that if families with LGBT members just leave the church without sharing their experiences, then the silence is perpetuated. He finished by charging the audience with continuing this dialogue and bringing up SOGI issues in faith communities and religious organizations.
The event ended with a short Q and A and resounding applause.
If you have any questions or comments about this event or this topic, feel free to leave them as a comment on this blog. We encourage all opinions and viewpoints but ask that comments avoid personal attacks. If you have a specific question concerning this program or would like to ask a private question to one of the panelists, email Mordechai Levovitz, LGBT Intern, at UNIntern@UUA.org
UU-UNO Continuing Conversation
The UU-UNO is committed to continuing this dialogue at the UN, at the Church Center and internationally.
• We are planning a full screening of “God Loves Uganda” and a corresponding discussion with faith leaders discussing how religion can be used to combat violence and intolerance.
• The UU-UNO also works with the UU congregation in Uganda to support Ugandan LGBT people and counter messages of hate and prejudice. Our dream is to organize a Symposium on Reconciliation in Uganda, where influential faith leaders will come to Uganda to preach a gospel of tolerance, understanding and love.
• On April 4-6 the UU-UNO will be hosting a three day spring seminar at the UN exploring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity within the framework of international human rights and traditional values. This event is open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Click here for more information about joining our Spring Seminar!
For Tax Deductible Donations that support local Ugandan efforts like our Ugandan Symposium on Reconciliation, we ask that you make a contribution to the UU-UNO LGBT Uganda Fund, click here!