Monthly Archives: May 2012

There oughta be a law . . .

A few weeks ago, in “Silence = Death,” I addressed Robert Spitzer’s retraction of his famous 2003 “ex-gay” study. Since then, Spitzer has issued a more formal retraction that was published in the New York Times, and he was interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” a few days ago. And while all of this has been going on, the California legislature has been debating SB 1172, a bill introduced back in February by Senator Ted Lieu (D-28th District). Essentially, three stipulations are made in this bill:

  1. It mandates that, prior to initiating any form of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), informed consent must be obtained from the patient. “Informed consent” means that the patient must be able to demonstrate an understanding of the risks and benefits before agreeing to any therapeutic intervention.
  2. It clarifies the fact that minors are unable to provide informed consent for SOCE. Because of this, the use of SOCE with minors is prohibited, regardless of the desire of the minor’s parents for such therapy.
  3.  If these provisions are violated in any way, affected patients have the right to sue for damages.

The rationale for SB 1172 rests heavily on the 2009 Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, a 138-page review of research on SOCE. Shortly after this report was published, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution opposing any type of conversion therapy for homosexuality. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Counseling Association have also issued statements opposing efforts to change the sexual orientation of any individual.

However, not all professional organizations are unilaterally supporting this bill. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, the California Psychiatric Association, and the California Psychological Association have all taken an “oppose unless amended” position, and are supportive of the intent of the bill. In some cases, the requested amendments involve taking a stronger stance against SOCE – the concerns of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, for example, involve the ethical conflict posed by offering a harmful and ineffective form of treatment to an individual under any circumstances, even if the patient is requesting it and is aware of the potential risks. Other organizations have called for a clearer definition of “sexual orientation change efforts” so that the law isn’t inappropriately applied to sex offender treatment. In my opinion, these are important clarifications to make, and I’m grateful that these organizations are carefully considering the legal and ethical implications of this bill.

One of the more challenging concerns, however, involves a minor’s right to consent. Per SB 543, enacted in 2009, a minor who is 12 years of age or older may consent to mental health treatment or counseling services if, in the opinion of the attending professional person, the minor is mature enough to participate intelligently in the mental health treatment or counseling services. SB 1172 would create an exception to SB 543, and that is an issue that, from the perspective of these professional organizations, is a very important consideration.

Is it just me, or does this “parental consent” issue sound at all like the abortion argument to you? In fact, some of the most powerful arguments supporting SOCE sound eerily similar to the pro-choice “right to choose” rationale. Christopher Rosik, president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (which, by the way, is the largest supporter of reparative therapy in the United States) issued the following argument against a potential ban against SOCE:

“[T]he majority of parents who bring their children to therapists for SOCE are conservatively religious. SB 1172 sponsors assume that with SOCE prohibited among licensed mental-health professionals, these parents would then bring their children to clinicians who would only provide care aimed at encouraging their children to embrace GLB identity and behavior. I think the more likely scenario is that these parents, many of whom are already suspicious of the mental health professions, will simply pursue SOCE for their children with unlicensed, unregulated, and unaccountable religious counselors that do not fall under the jurisdiction of this bill” (emphasis mine).

In effect, Rosik is saying that parents have the right to seek safe SOCE for their children, and that they will resort to “back-alley” SOCE if safe SOCE by a trained professional is unavailable. In fact, NARTH’s mission statement is firmly anchored in the “right to choose” argument:

We respect the right of all individuals to choose their own destiny (emphasis mine). NARTH is a professional, scientific organization that offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality. As an organization, we disseminate educational information, conduct and collect scientific research, promote effective therapeutic treatment, and provide referrals to those who seek our assistance.

“NARTH upholds the rights of individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction to receive effective psychological care and the right of professionals to offer that care. We welcome the participation of all individuals who will join us in the pursuit of these goals.”

How sad it is that we need to consider passing a law in order to uphold the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”). and Principle A of the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (“beneficence and nonmaleficence”). And how sad it is that organizations like NARTH still cling to the idea, even in the face of substantial contradictory evidence, that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can be successfully treated. Barry Goldwater may have said, “You can’t legislate morality,” but sometimes passing a law is the only way to enforce moral behaviors.


Filed under homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, reparative therapy, Uncategorized

Last dance

Judy Garland. Grace Kelly. Dolly Parton. Bette Midler. Elizabeth Taylor. Cher. Cyndi Lauper. Madonna. Quick – what do they all have in common?

They’re all female. They’re all famous entertainers. And they’re been granted membership in the exclusive “gay icon” club, either for their glamour, flamboyance, camp, or strength in the face of adversity. And most of them have given the love right back to the gay community. Bette Midler was known for performing at gay bathhouses. Cyndi Lauper has dedicated her annual “True Colors Tour” to political activism for LGBT rights. Even Tammy Faye Messner (who, when she was married to Jim Bakker, was known as “the ultimate drag queen”) said in her last interview with Larry King that, “When I went — when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.” The gay community is unflinchingly loyal to its icons, and most icons have expressed gratitude for that.

Except, perhaps, Donna Summer.

Summer, who died of lung cancer this past week at age 63, was most definitely a member – albeit a potentially unwilling one – of the “gay icon” club. Her “gay icon” title went hand-in-hand with her reign as the “Queen of Disco.” What made Summer different, however, was that she never embraced the gay community, and at one point in her career she was accused of making overtly homophobic remarks. In the midst of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Summer, who by then had become a born-again Christan, allegedly told a group of fans that AIDS was a punishment from God for the sinful lives of homosexuals. Although Summer subsequently denied that she ever made such a comment, the damage had been done, and, as the gay community turned away from her in protest, her career never fully recovered from it. Even so, headlines all over the country stated this:


So why was Donna Summer so revered by the gay community, even though she was never a champion of LGBTQ rights? As superficial as this might sound, I actually think that Donna Summer – and other gay icons – have a very important place in the psychological development of our LGBTQ identities. In order to connect the dots on this thought process for you, I need to go back in time a little – specifically, back to 1979 – and give a little psychological history lesson.  

In 1979, a newly-minted Australian psychologist by the name of Vivienne Cass published a paper in the Journal of Homosexuality titled “Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model,” a paper that established what is now the fundamental theory of gay and lesbian identity development. Her six-stage theory outlines the sequence of events that many lesbian and gay people go through as they come to terms with their sexual orientation. One of the reasons her theory is so widely utilized is because it recognizes the importance of finding community. According to Cass, in order for gay and lesbian people to fully accept and embrace their sexual identities, they need to move out of social isolation – for social isolation breeds self-alienation. They need to meet other gay and lesbian people and become part of the gay community.

In the pre-Stonewall era, finding community wasn’t an easy task. Gays were persecuted during the Holocaust in the 1930s and ’40s, and during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era in the 1950s. Their sexual behavior was criminalized by sodomy laws, and pathologized by the psychiatric diagnostic system of the era. It just wasn’t safe to be out – that was the bottom line. Given that reality, it’s no wonder that some of the most quintessential gay icons, like Judy Garland, emerged during that time. In a climate of invisibility, where it was nearly impossible to find openly gay or lesbian role models, validation was found in the tragic lives of Judy Garland, or James Dean (iconic “stone butch” in the 1950s lesbian community), or numerous other public figures.   

The Stonewall Riots, however, were a game-changer when it came to finding community. In the 1970s, after the Stonewall Riots had taken place, a more visible gay community began to take shape, and the gay liberation movement gained momentum. And yet, even with the shifting political and cultural climate, there weren’t too many places you could go to find other gay and lesbian people. Think about it. If you think you might be gay, and you’re really struggling with this possibility, and it’s, let’s say, 1978, where would you go to find other gay people?

A gay bar or gay club.

And what kind of music was being played at the time in these gay bars and clubs?


And who was the Queen of Disco?


Donna Summer may never have deliberately courted the gay community. But her music was in the right place at the right time. Her music defined the club scene of the 1970s, and it provided a backdrop for gay and lesbian people who were trying to connect with other people like themselves. Despite her alleged comments during the AIDS crisis, Summer’s music has made its indelible mark on gay culture – and, I believe, on gay identity development.

Dim all the lights, and rest in peace.


Filed under coming out, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, LGBTQ, media, overt homophobia, psychological research, Uncategorized

To win it, you’ve got to get in it!

It was a landslide. Last Tuesday, by a vote of 61 percent in favor, 39 percent against, North Carolina passed Amendment 1, which has been referred to as the “marriage-plus” amendment. Not only does this  constitutional amendment define marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman – making North Carolina the 30th state to pass such an initiative – it also declares other forms of recognition for same-sex couples null and void.

This initiative was a crushing blow to the marriage equality movement. What didn’t help matters is the fact that some gay rights organizations (Freedom to Marry being a prime example) failed to invest time, money, and energy in blocking the passage of the initiative, figuring that trying to fight the Borg was futile. “If gays ever win the right to marry in the South,” writes Lila Shapiro of the Huffington Post, paraphrasing Freedom to Marry founder/director Evan Wolfson, “it will be when the Supreme Court rules on the issue or the federal government steps in.” If we’re going to lose anyway, the reasoning goes, why bother playing the game?

Well, as the old Lotto commerical said, “to win it, you’ve got to get in it.” And even if the small win doesn’t come now, the big win could come later. How, you might ask, could we possibly score a big win when states all over the country are sealing the deal against gay rights with constitutional amendments?

One word: Media.

Back in the 1960s, Robert Zajonc (pronounced “zy-ence”), a social psychologist from Stanford University, popularized the concept known as the mere exposure effect, which works like this: If you hear a message or idea over and over again, even if you initially disagree with it, you will eventually come to agree with it, merely because you were repeatedly exposed to it. Hence the term “mere exposure” effect. So even if an anti-gay initiative passes, there’s immense value in flooding the airwaves with messages supporting LGBTQ rights. Unfortunately, in North Carolina, this opportunity wasn’t utilized to its fullest potential.

Increasingly, however, the media has been powerfully effective in changing attitudes about LGBTQ people, even in the absence of pro-gay political advertising. Edward Schiappa, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, has conducted several studies on what he refers to as “parasocial contact hypothesis.” This concept is an extension of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, detailed more clearly in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice. According to this idea, prejudical attitudes change when we have the opportunity to have significant, meaningful interactions with people who belong to that group. In some cases, the only experience some individuals may have with LGBTQ people may well be through the media. Viewers of Glee get to know Kurt and Blaine. Modern Family devotees connect with Mitchell and Cameron. Through these “parasocial contacts” – these illusory media relationships – we become emotionally attached to these characters. And this “parasocial contact” changes attitudes.

So Freedom to Marry may have dropped the ball, but the major television networks are getting the message out anyway, right under our noses. And, in an unexpected plot twist, the ball that Freedom to Marry dropped was very deftly picked up by our very own President, Barack Obama. The very next day (which I’m sure all of you know by now), in a groundbreaking move, Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage. While many analysts see this announcement as politically risky, I think it was brilliant. Why? Because (1) his support was long overdue anyway, (2) he made history by taking a clear stand in support of same-sex marriage, and history can’t be reversed, and (3) he took the bull by the horns and put gay rights on the campaign agenda. You better believe that we’ll be hearing about same-sex marriage ad nauseum from now until November. And this could be a golden opportunity in the fight to secure same-sex marriage rights – and possibly a prime opportunity for Obama to turn his polling numbers around.

So listen up, marriage equality groups. And listen up, Obama campaign people. If there was ever a time to mobilize a two-pronged strategy, utilizing the mere exposure effect and the parasocial contact hypothesis, the time is now. Saturate the media with pro-gay political advertising, and you’ve got the mere exposure effect. Connect Barack Obama with the message of gay rights, and connect him with viewers by plugging him into as many popular media opportunities as possible (such as the slow jam news with Jimmy Fallon), and you’re wielding the tool of parasocial contact. And even when it gets ugly, stay the course.


Filed under human rights, LGBTQ, psychological research, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

Going outside the box

OK, so the U.S Census Bureau dropped the ball (in my opinion, anyway) regarding how they tracked LGBTQ couples. But they did do something that a lot of psychological researchers don’t do when they study LGBTQ people – they collected data that allow us to examine multiple intersecting aspects of LGBTQ identities. The example I have in mind comes from a report released by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute titled, “Same-Sex Couples in Census 2010: Race and Ethnicity,” which documented the following: 

  • Same-sex couples are as likely as different-sex married couples to include a racial or ethnic minority.
  • Compared to different-sex married couples with children, a higher percentage of same-sex couples with children include at least one racial/ethnic minority.
  • Same-sex couples are significantly more likely than any other type of couple to be interracial or interethnic. 

All three of these findings reflect the multiple, interlocking identities many LGBTQ people possess, a concept many scholars refer to as intersectionality. Many LGBTQ people who are members of multiple minority groups often feel as if various aspects of their identities get parceled out, depending on which community they’re involved with at the time. A black lesbian may be seen for her “gayness” within the LGBTQ community, for her “blackness” within the African-American community, and for her “femaleness” when she’s involved with a women’s group. Intersectionality theory goes beyond the split-personality concept of identity, noting that attempts to compartmentalize different parts of our identities are limiting and oppressive. Moreover, intersectionality theory addresses the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and class oppression, calling for the dismantling of the “system” of oppressions.

If you’ve ever studied feminist theory, or sociological theory, or critical race theory, you are most certainly familiar with the concept of intersectionality. When I was studying feminist theory in college back in the early 1990s, intersectionality was cutting-edge stuff. I read “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” I read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. Anything written by bell hooks, I devoured – and I got to hear it straight from the source when she came to speak on my campus. Now, this stuff is practically considered to be old-school, at least among sociologists, feminists, and critical race theorists.  

But not so much among psychologists. For the most part (with some limited exceptions), psychology has lagged far behind other disciplines in incorporating intersectionality into its theories and research methods. Why is that? Psychological researchers love categories. They love boxes you can check. They tend to value quantitative statistical analysis more highly than other research methods. And unfortunately, when research data is restricted to checked boxes and quantitative analysis, the nuances of intersecting identities often get lost.

Here’s an example. In 2011, a journal called Family Process published a large-sample study titled, “Heterosexual, Lesbian, and Gay Male Relationships: A Comparison of Couples in 1975 and 2000.” Several well-known researchers were included on the roster of authors, including Robert-Jay Green from Alliant International University and Esther Rothblum from San Diego State University. Because the pool included more than 6,700 participants (which most psychological researchers would consider to be a large sample), here was a prime opportunity to look at intersecting identities within relationships. But instead, the demographic data was reported the way it’s typically reported in psychological journal articles –  in a categorical and non-overlapping manner. There was a “gender” category, where participants were identified as male or female. There was a “sexual orientation” category, where participants were identified as gay men, heterosexual men, lesbian women, or heterosexual women. And there was a “race/ethnicity” category, where participants were identified as African American, Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, White, or “other.” Categories such as transgender, bisexual, or multiracial/multiethnic – all of which blur the binary – were not included. And no information about interracial or interethnic couples was gathered either. Instead, we have nice, neat, clean, non-overlapping categories, which is fairly typical of psychological research. Now granted, a significant portion of the data from this study were collected in 1975, and back then the concepts of intersectionality and non-binary identities were very much in the embryonic stage. Still, this report was published in 2011, and in 2011, we still can’t think outside the box. We’re still trying to put people into nice, neat, non-overlapping categories, instead of accounting for the interface of multiple identities. Unfortunately, being wedded to the simple “check one box” methodology shortchanges our abilities to understand multiple levels of diversity.

Change is happening, though. Although feminist and multicultural psychologists aren’t necessarily in the mainstream of the field, it is within these circles that discussions of intersectionality and innovative research methodologies are taking place. And even though it’s a tiny drop in the bucket, the fact that the U.S. Census data is being analyzed in terms of multiple, intersecting identities is a very good sign. So listen up, psychologists. If scholars analyzing U.S. Census data are considering intersectionality, then we ought to be as well.

You can read “Same-Sex Couples in Census 2010: Race and Ethnicity” by going to

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, LGBTQ, psychological research, transgender, Uncategorized