February 13,2013

Gay or Straight? When others decide for you – Part One

A lawsuit was recently filed in New Jersey against an organization called JONAH -Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing. I plan to blog about it, but as an introduction to the topic, here’s a true story:

I once saw a college student who, a few hours earlier, nearly jumped from the window of his ninth floor dorm room.

Fortunately he hesitated, and walked to the campus counseling center instead. He was screened by a therapist, then sent over to me for an emergency psychiatric evaluation.

Malik (not his real name) was deeply distressed. “I don’t want to be how I am”, he explained. “I’m attracted to men, but it isn’t me. I know it’s not me.”

It was a dreadful situation. Malik was from Malaysia, where homosexuality is punishable by caning and decades in prison. He had struggled for years, never acting on his urges or sharing his secret. Now he felt hopeless and
suicidal.

The therapist had reassured him that help was available. With therapy, she’d explained, Malik would eventually accept who he is, and understand why he’d come to hate himself: because society did. There was also group therapy. He could meet students like himself and, with their support, perhaps be able to eventually “come out” to his friends and family.

But her advice compounded his distress. “It’s not who I am!” he insisted to me. “I’ll never accept it! Why would G-d do this to me?”

I listened carefully. The help Malik wanted existed, but I was afraid to tell him about it.

Where I worked, reparative therapy was taboo; its existence was never acknowledged. On a politically charged hot potato scale of 1 to 10, this issue was a 12.

The mental health establishment says sexual orientation doesn’t change in the direction of heterosexuality. Reparative therapy can be dangerous, it warns; a resolution condemning it had nearly passed. What about ex-gays -the men and women who claim to have succeeded? They are deceiving themselves.

At the same time, a small, respectable group of professionals contend that change is possible, and a vocal community of ex-gays says their lives give testimony to that. I’d read compelling interviews, and seen a picture of them picketing the national meetings of psychiatrists and psychologists, carrying signs that say “I DO exist”.

That’s what flashed through my mind as Malik sat in silence, head down.

“Malik”, I said, “I can prescribe medication so you’ll feel less anxious and depressed. You also need therapy. The therapy we provide here may help you accept this part of yourself, and help you figure out how to deal with friends and family.”

“No,” he interrupted. “I could never, ever tell my family. You don’t understand! This is not who I am!”

Then I did the unthinkable.

“There is another kind of therapy,” I continued, “that would support you in struggling against your attraction to men.” I decided to tell him, because it was the right thing to do.

“What?” he asked.”Does it work? Can I do it here?”

I shared what I knew, and told him about a website with more information. Only gay-affirming therapy was available here, I explained. He needed to give this a lot of thought, and decide what he wanted.

Malik claimed to no longer be suicidal. We reviewed the medication, and set up the next appointment. He thanked me and left.

The door closed, and though I knew I’d done the right thing for my patient, I wondered if I’d put my good standing in jeopardy. Word would spread: Miriam told a student about reparative therapy! I could just as well have announced my membership in the KKK. What consequences would I face?

Was there even one other person on our large staff, I wondered, who shared my views – that Malik should be told about both options, and allowed to choose his own path? If so, they’d never publicized their opinion. But considering how worried I was about my own deviation from the party line, I could understand their silence.

To be continued…

21 comments

  1. timothy black - reply

    Good for you!

    Suppose it wasn’t sexual behavior but anything else the person disliked about themselves. How many counselors would say, ‘You just need to learn to accept it.’ ?

  2. Joshua - reply

    Thank you for your courage and moral integrity. If Malik is able to get treatment for the causes of his same sex attraction, you have saved him a life time of disappointment.

  3. Batsheva - reply

    Learning how to become the person you desire to be should be a fundemental human right. How has the world become so twisted as to force someone with SSA to dig themselves in deeper, if they truly want to do something different. Without a choice there is NO FREE WILL! Shame on the mental health community for not supporting both sides of the equation. Congrats to therapists who provide choices for their clients.

    • MiriamGrossman - reply

      The rights of patients like Malik are being threatened. That’s why the lawsuit against JONAH is so important. I am not defending all the allegations against them, I am defending the right of the individual to self determination. Stay tuned for Part Two of this series.

  4. David - reply

    I love it personally and professionally when someone else points out the necessity and right of every individual to make up their own mind instead of having it made up for them no matter what the issue is.

  5. P. Grossman - reply

    That moment when you decided to take a brave risk may have saved his life, and in the telling of it, saved many more.

  6. jslr - reply

    Thank you for stand up to the freedom and right of every individual to determine what kind of therapy he wants to persue and to be able to determine the goal of the therapy for himself.

    If only the LGBT-community would accept this, much pain and suffering would not be.

  7. Karen - reply

    My heart goes out to poor Malik and all other struggling people out there who are unable to objectively learn about the choices available to them.

    Someone in my family who is struggling with SSA is greatly benefitting from reparative therapy and has gotten a new lease on life as a result. I will forever be grateful to the therapist who introduced him to this concept. My blessings to all brave professionals who courageously inform their clients of this option.

  8. MiriamGrossman - reply

    What an upside down world, in which therapists need courage to explain a treatment option to their patients in distress. In Malik’s case, he was suicidal. How many others are there like him, in high schools and on college campuses?

  9. Lisa Rue - reply

    What you did is the only professional way to handle this situation. We are to provide all the options and then let our clients decide for themselves what direction they need to follow. It is unethical to not provide both options for clients.

  10. Camille - reply

    I like your title, it says it all….Great insight Dr. Grossman.

  11. John Wigg - reply

    I have once met a young man of Islamic upbringing who was also same-sex attracted. In view of the nature and prevalence of divorce amongst certain social classes in certain Islamic communities and the fact that children involved in an Islamic divorce are the father’s children and not the mother’s children at law, I wonder what links there may be between parental divorce in Islam and the development of same-sex attraction in the affected children.

  12. Riley - reply

    Thank You so much

  13. Rick - reply

    You’d think after the public relations disaster of the Dr. George Rekers scandal in 2010, conservatives would reconsider their promotion of “ex-gay” therapy. But to appropriate what Samuel Johnson said about a second marriage, ex-gayism represents the triumph of hope over experience.

  14. auggie - reply

    Okay, so because there’s such a thing as a hypocrite, therefore people shouldn’t get to make their own medical decisions. Gotcha.

  15. MiriamGrossman - reply

    Auggie, I don’t understand your comment. Please explain.

  16. ANTONS - reply

    Of course if a person is desperate to stop “being gay”, and he truly believes ha can do that, why should you discourage him. Sublimation is possible and, most possibly, he could manage living his life without entering into relationships with men. May be he even could marry (there are so many marriages, which are not based on sexual attraction). Or become an abstinent. But WHY do you call it reparative therapy?!

    • MiriamGrossman - reply

      Hi Antons, I am just using the term used by the mental health community. I don’t like it either.

  17. ANTONS - reply

    But isn’t it misleading? Reparative therapy (range of treatments that aim to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual) is considered to be harmful because it is fraud. I don’t believe it can be effective, and as far as I know there are no any evidence, that sexual orientation can truly be changed as a result of “therapy”. AND it sounds offensive.

    In the same time I agree that sublimation can be achieved, may be in some cases it can explain seemingly positive results (temporary or permanent) of so called reparative therapy. No problems with that. If someone wants to stop suffering from desires which are dissonant with their understanding, they should be helped, probably. But is it called reparative therapy and is it illegal?

    Do you agree? Or I have no idea about what is happening in the mental helath community in the US? (I am Latvian living in Spain)

    • MiriamGrossman - reply

      Hi Antons, thank you for writing. Like I said in an earlier reply, I don’t really like the term reparative therapy either. But please know that it can be helpful, indeed very helpful, for some people. There is an entire community of ex-gays, as they call themselves. In my book you’re. Teaching My Child WHAT?, I describe meeting some of these people, and their stories. It’s not just sublimation, it is real change, as they go thru the therapy and gain insight to themselves and their relationships. It is hard work, and you need to be highly motivated, and to stick with it. But this is true for most therapies in which people are working on changing themselves. Please check out http://www.narth.com for more information. Thank you for reading my blog and for your good questions.

  18. C. Brown - reply

    As soon as I read this, it reminded me of being overweight. At least according to one theory, one’s weight is set genetically. Yet there is huge societal pressure to be thin. Almost no one would advocate not exercising and going on a diet, yet would be horrified if one recommended actively trying to change one’s sexual orientation. In any case, with obesity rates climbing in the US, the billions of dollars spent seem to disprove that weight loss is really a choice, either.

    The other thing that came to mind was addiction to porn. It’s not illegal to be addicted to porn and, given our society’s almost constant sexual inundation, it seems to be all but condoned. Yet it seems to me that no one would object to someone asking for help in getting treated, no matter what the success rate was.

    Bravo to you, Miriam, for being brave and for giving your client what he asked for.

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