The Truth About NARTH (National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality)
John D. Powell, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist. He was a staff psychologist at the University of Illinois Counseling Center from 1984-2007. During his 23 years there, he served in several capacities in addition to providing individual and group therapy: Coordinator of Intern Training, Chair of Trauma Response Team, Adjunct Professor in Psychology, and clinical supervisor for many doctoral trainees.
The National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) recently published a letter addressing some misconceptions and misinformation regarding NARTH. The letter is respectful in its tone and compelling in its content, as long as one holds the same views of homosexuality as NARTH. Their view is that people who are “dissatisfied with their unwanted homosexual attractions should be given the opportunity to choose their own path and to pursue change if they so desire.” The implication is that those who discover they are attracted to some individuals of the same sex but are uncomfortable with that attraction are probably not homosexual to begin with, and should therefore have the chance to “receive assistance in pursuing a different identity.”
While this sounds reasonable and respectful, NARTH appears to dismiss the fact that a vast majority of gay and lesbian youth and adults who have grown comfortably into their sexual identity have also experienced periods of dissatisfaction with their unwanted homosexual attractions during the coming out process. With few exceptions, gay and lesbian college students with whom I have worked described times during which they adamantly did not want to be gay. It is often a long and arduous emotional and interpersonal journey from initial curiosity and confusion to accepting their own identity. That journey almost always involves going through periods of profound fear of being gay and a longing that it not be true. These feelings are particularly intense in the early stages of coming out. Who would want to be gay or lesbian in a family, church, school, or culture that held such behavior as unacceptable, sinful, perverted, or shameful? With those messages in their ears, who would not have periods of “dissatisfaction with unwanted homosexual attraction?”
Most gay and lesbian adults in my clinical practice talked about their early awareness of being “different” without really knowing what that difference was. That difference often had to do with childhood preferences for friends and activities that differed from many of their same-sex peers. Those differences were later experienced as same-sex attractions even before there was a sexual component to the attraction. However, most also learned at an early age, through direct and indirect messages, that such differences were unacceptable. With the fear of being unacceptable, most children and adults are naturally going to experience dissatisfaction with unwanted attractions until they have the opportunity to more fully appreciate and embrace their sexual orientation. To assume that such dissatisfaction is a cause to change one’s orientation is to maintain a naïve understanding of the development of sexual and gender identity in general, and to ignore the increased complexity of that development for lesbian and gay individuals in particular.
NARTH does state clearly that they do not believe homosexuality is a mental illness; “rather, homosexuality is an adaptation that is distressful for some people.” According to “The Three Myths About Homosexuality,” another NARTH document, these adaptations appear to be to social and psychological factors such as “early family relationships, sexual seduction, and sense of inadequacy with same-sex peers, with resulting disturbance in gender identity.” Throughout the website documents, homosexuality is associated with a variety of negative experiences, such as a poor relationship with father, difficulty individuating from mother, a sense of masculine deficit, and a persistent belief of having been different from, and misunderstood by same-sex childhood peers. In addition, documents state that homosexual clients commonly report early sexual experience with an older, same-sex person, and that gay teens are especially vulnerable to substance abuse and early, high-risk sexual behavior.
While many of these associations may be true, it is a dangerous and potentially damaging thing to make simple associations that one can easily turn on oneself or can use against another. To the vulnerable teen or the scared parent, it is easy to make causal relationships out of such statements, concluding that the child’s homosexuality may be the cause of, or be caused by these poor relationships. It might also be concluded from such statements that homosexuality may be the result of confusion caused by same-sex molestation as a child.
Is it not also possible that because the child already feels different and has internalized many messages about those differences being bad or shameful, that the young boy or girl is now insecure and therefore emotionally vulnerable or excessively guarded in those important relationships? In all likelihood the parents and friends also sense those differences and may well be confused, frightened, or even ashamed of their own feelings or of the child. Such vulnerability also makes a child a target for the pedophiliac, who seeks out precisely those children whom he or she senses to be most emotionally vulnerable. Much of the therapy I provided for gay and lesbian clients focused on undoing such associations that left the young adult feeling responsible for the meanness and mindlessness that had been aimed at them throughout their young lives.
NARTH attempts to frame their position for homosexuality in a discussion of what is “normal”. In one of their documents, “normal” is defined as “that which functions according to its design.” They give room for those who choose to be homosexual and are content with it, but they dismiss the idea that homosexuality can really be normal and healthy for an individual. If someone suffers because of their homosexuality, they are “failing to function according to design” and should therefore be given the opportunity to overcome their homosexual adaptation. There is clearly more to homosexuality than a chosen adaptation to difficult childhood experiences. Otherwise we’d see people choosing homosexuality because they have grown tired of being in unhealthy and unsatisfying heterosexual relationships.
This adaptation argument dismisses society’s responsibility to become more informed, more appreciative, and more accepting of the many forms of sexual orientation that individuals do indeed find to be according to their design. Lesbian and gay individuals would suffer less if they found themselves in a culture and world that accepted many designs. If that were the case, we would likely discover that the relational difficulties, anxieties, personality disorders, developmental adjustments, and all the other aspects of growing up homosexual would likely be no different than those of heterosexuals, who are doing their own growing and adapting according to their own design.
Soulforce is preparing to challenge NARTH–National Association of Research & Therapy for Homosexuality–on it’s religious and pseudo-scientific claims about homosexuality which harm indiviauls and families and fuel misunderstanding which leads to anti-LGBT sentitment, actions, and public policy, such as California’s Proposition 8.