Q: As a clinician and community member why do think people in Utah are reacting the way they are to the current events surrounding the homosexual community?
A: That's a complicated question. I think that part of the answer certainly lies in the beliefs of the predominant religion here. It is hard to separate out social response from religious tenants. The Mormon Church is not neutral on the issue, they've taken a very clear position: that homosexuality and homosexual behavior is immoral. It's unacceptable under any condition and you risk sanctioning by your church community if you remain an unrepentant sinner. That has set a tone in the community. It's almost ended the debate. If that's the posture of the church then what else is there to discuss here?
I think it's also been fueled by the fact that what started the most recent avalanche was kids. That it happened in schools, and that it wasn't an adult issue. And it wasn't a one time kind of an issue that we addressed and it was resolved one way or the other and then it went away. It was kids. It didn't go away. And even bigger than that, they broke the code of silence. I think there's a kind of unspoken mandate, that as long as you're quiet, as long as you don't make an issue of it, as long as you don't make any demands around it, then we'll leave you alone. But, if you come to the fore, we're goin' go to battle here. And the kids refused to be silent and they refused to let it go away. And a firestorm's resulted. The same has happened in the Nebo School District around the issue of silence. And if you refuse silence, then there's going to be a battle.
Q: Two follow up questions: Why do you think kids are making this an issue now? Not just kids, but also the gay and lesbian community is speaking out. Why that change against silence in our society?
A: I actually don't think it's been as sudden as it might appear; there's been a very strong political gay movement in this community for many years. Vocal people willing to come to the fore, willing to discuss views that are contrary to the social morals of this community, or certainly the religious morals. So that isn't new. I just think that it's just been kind of dynamite with the long tail attached and when the kids got involved, it lit a different kind of a spark. And a different kind of a fear. It tapped into the fear about recruiting, about being unable to stop this, about contaminating our youth. About a lot of the fears and myths that already envelope the issue of homosexuality.
The why now? I think that the climate is set for this. It's not out of the media anymore. People don't perceive themselves to be the only one in a city. They know that there are others. Why this group of kids came together in such a courageous way, I am not sure. But I think it's been powerful, and I think that the tone has certainly been set by some people who have come before.
Q: You mentioned tone of religion, predominantly LDS. Explain that to me a little more and why you think that has such a powerful effect.
A: I think it would be dishonest to represent Utah as a state where government and religion are separate entities. They are very much intertwined. This is a state with a strong family value. It is a state where where LDS doctrine has set the tone for the practices, for the beliefs, for the bills that come through the legislature. It affects people in profound ways. Many of the gay and lesbian people that I deal with are not ignorant to that. They've actually come up through the Mormon faith. And part of the struggle is rooted in the fact that they believe the tenants of the Mormon faith. That it is their religion, that it is their gospel. But little did they know, they would evolve into an awareness of their own sexual identity being outside of the norm. And being unacceptable within the confines of that faith. I don't know if that answers the question, but I don't know how else to address it.
Q: I'd like you to comment specifically on the church's policy about homosexuality and what that means to gay and lesbian issues.
A: I guess the biggest shift I've seen in the church's position on homosexuality is as I said very clear: that homosexual behavior is immoral and always unacceptable. The shift that I've seen is that there is some acknowledgment that there may be a genetic component. But that doesn't change the underlying presumptions about it. Then again, I lost the question.
Q: Just specifically comment on the policy and how it affects our community here. Both sides, the gay and lesbian community as well as the straight community.
A: I think
most profoundly the policies don't allow for dialogue. They don't allow
for an open discussion about the possibilities. They shut down any ability
to have interactions around what human experience dictates. It's filed
under the heading of sin. What else is there is to know? What that does
within a family when you have a gay or lesbian child come forward and
tell you about their sexual orientation with confusion or concern. How
can we respond if we truly believe that this is immoral? that it will
cost your eternal salvation, that it will separate you from your family
and your God. How can we possibly have an open dialogue about this? We're
talking about saving souls.
Q: Let's talk about the approach of the Church and other religion when individuals say I am born this way, and they respond with NO, you have a choice. Even if the genetic component was proved, it wouldn't matter. What do you believe are people born that way or is there an element of choice?
A: I believe firmly in choice. But I believe choice is more about behavior then it is about orientation. And we must separate the two. When clinicians or church leaders are promising gay and lesbians people that they can change their orientation if they are faithful enough or prayerful enough or if they work hard enough. I think that they are doing incalculable damage to those individuals. They're promising something that they can't deliver. If, on the other hand, we are talking about choice of behaviors, there's a full range of possibility there. There is for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. You can choose celibacy, you can choose promiscuity, you can choose monogamy, you can choose to stay single and date for the rest of your life. You can do any number of things around your sexuality. But to change your orientation, we're selling snake oil.
Q: I'd like to understand a little more about therapy approaches. Today, most social workers don't see homosexuality as a disease, although some still do, and what about this idea of advocating a patient's right to choose? What does that mean?
A: The National Association of Social Workers has come out with a very strong stand in support of gay and lesbian rights. And equal posture in the society; socially, legally, politically in every regard. More recently, they have added to that concerns about reparative or conversion therapies, and have suggested that social workers are discouraged from providing it and are discouraged from even referring to agencies or people who do provide it.
The National Association stopped short of threatening any kind of sanction to social workers who do, it was simply discouraged. This aligns with American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association; all have similar policies around this. There is not, however, a consensus within those bodies, and it remains a controversial topic. Again, because this is so laden in morality, and it is viewed as an immoral behavior, people who hold that belief have to be able to offer something. How can we say this is immoral and then say you're damned for all eternity? So, I think the people who are providing it are more motivated by those religious beliefs that they may be by any scientific data supporting conversion therapy because that is lacking. It's not available. And in fact the National Association of Social Workers implied that it is hurtful, it's damaging to provide this therapy.
Q: It sounds positive when therapist are offering a choice, to live heterosexually and have a family, this is what everyone wants etc. Why would that be harmful?
A: One of
the strongest tenants of the social work profession is the right to choose.
That the client has the right to self-determination, absolutely. I believe
that 100 percent. I don't believe, however, that means when someone sits
down with you and says, I'm conflicted about this sexual orientation that
it's bad and I need to correct it, that we immediately launch into that
being our goal. That I am going to help you change your orientation so
you adapt to society. It needs a lot deeper exploration of where the feelings
come from, what you perceive about it, who you've talked to, what your
objective is, and what really we know scientifically can and can not occur
here. What we can support happening.
Q: Do you really believe those who have gone through this conversion therapy, have truly changed from being homosexual?
A: Again, it's an issue of behavior versus orientation. I don't believe that orientation can be defined in a just one or the other kind of continuum. It is a variable kind of continuum, and some people may find themselves in different places on that continuum through out their lifetime. It's not that you are either gay or you are straight. End of conversation. It's much more complicated then that.
So can people change? Some of the literature suggests that if we are talking about bisexuality, you have room to move with what might be the more comfortable decision for you in terms of who love, where you align all those sorts of things. If you're further down that scale toward homosexuality, are you going to be changed into a heterosexual being? No. If you're heterosexual, are you going to have a homosexual encounter and all of the sudden shift your entire orientation? No. It's not that simple. We want it to be. It would uncomplicate this issue, if we certainly could, if we just could flip a switch and have people be what the community would like them to be. It's not happening.
Q: So as a therapist, how do you counsel people who are struggling with this issue? What do you think is a healthy way to deal with it?
A: I view
my task as helping them to understand the nature of their struggle. What
does it mean to you? How did you come to know this? What do you believe
about it? What do you want? What forces are influencing your decisions
around how you're seeking treatment? Where does spirituality fit in? How
does all come together for you?
Q: What about educating kids in the schools about these issues? Many parents are strongly against it. Is it a bad idea to have gay clubs in schools? Or are the fears not grounded.
A: Good question, and I have a very strong opinion about it. We treat this question as if are kids at risk. That's not the question. Gay kids are in schools, and they are one of the highest at risk populations in the school system. If we know that, how shall we address it? That's the question. We know that the suicide rate is high among gay teens. We know that a quarter of all homeless teens are lesbian and gay. We know that one study demonstrated that one in fifteen gay and lesbian teens when they tell their parents are abused within the context of their own families. We know that there's a higher drop out rate that there is a higher risk of self-injury. That there is a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse. What more do we need to define this population at risk?
I think the way we have approached it has been to view it as, which child should we save? Should we save straight children from information about gay children and therefore prevent the risk of them catching this disease at the the expense of the gay kids? Or should we accommodate an education that is, let me back up.
Can we create an education system that will allow all information to be available? Homosexuality is not contagious. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, of trying on new behaviors. Of kind of losing your grounding now and then about what you believe and what you want and who you'll become. We've come to expect that and we've set perimeters to hopefully guide children safely through that phrase. To deny them of information, to say, if we bury our head in the sand you'll be safer, is a myth and a dangerous position for an educational system to assume.
Where will kids get the information? Off the Internet, on the playground, in the alleys, at a gay bar? Where do you want them to get the information? We want to temper ideas with facts, not hide from the possibility. And I assure you that it's not going to create an overwhelming number of gay kids if we talk about it in a more open forum. It might help people come to a clearer understanding and go through a whole lot less grief on their way.
Should we have gay clubs in the schools? Ideally, I absolutely believe so. Should they be without perimeters? Without faculty guidance, with an open forum? Probably not. We wouldn't do that for any organization. Again, what we fear is that this is going to be a sex club. That's ridiculous. People choose to affiliate with clubs who represent who they are, where there is a kindred spirit, a commonality. That's what a gay club is: people who have similar struggles, people who can come together and say I don't know how to maneuver through this part of my life. What's working? It isn't about sex and we need to stop sexualizing the topic.
Q: Let's talk about the kids who are being marginalized. I've interviewed Ben, a cheerleader at East High, who talks about being pushed down the stairs, called names, tripped, their cars being vandalized…. Tell me a little bit about what that does to kids. Also tell me your perspective as a therapist about the kids who do those things.
A: I don't know if I can fully answer that. One of the problems is that we're afraid if kids align in a gay club that that's going to make them more the target of hatred and prejudice. The reality is that they're already the target of hatred and prejudice. What we can hope to do is create a greater understanding and to humanize the issue a little bit more. I read a quote, and I am sorry I can't tell you who said it. "Healthy development is not possible in settings where certain children learn that they are fair game for mistreatment while others learn that it is permissible to mistreat."
We expect children to find their way through adolescence, to find their way through sometime hostile environments, and come out of it as fully functioning adults, in a cooperative society. But we don't give them any means of getting there. If you're in the group of mistreated individuals. Are we teaching people that's it is okay? That this is the group that it's okay to malign. This is a group that it's okay to speak hatefully about, to push around in the hall, that we are going to turn our heads. In the past, I think that many people have kept their mouth shut as they've seen this happen because they're afraid that their own sexuality might be caused into question. Or worse, they'll be seen as recruiters. They'll be seen as the child molesters who are out there just trying to find those victims.
So, people who could advocate, haven't. They've stayed quiet and watched something that they wouldn't allow to happen with any other minority group. More and more we're standing up against that and saying that it doesn't matter if we're talking about gay or straight or religion or gender or ethnicity. It's the same issue. Our children ought to be safe in school.
Q: One parent told me how her son was reprimanded by a teacher, ironically the sponsor of the Gay Straight Alliance Club, for saying "fag." She exclaimed how the teacher was really tough of those kids. She went on to express how she didn't want her son to be intolerant but at the same time they maintained certain beliefs in their home.
A: I think it's the "love the sinner, hate the sin" entality. What we saying to people when we're telling them is that you're a sinner, you're less then. We don't like who you are and we're not just talking about behavior here. When we're talking orientation, we're talking about a person's identity. Somebody can be a homosexual and never had a sexual encounter, and they will still be homosexually oriented. I don't know how you can teach tolerance in that kind of a package. To say that we don't like who you are, we don't like your behavior, we don't want our children to catch this, but that we certainly don't want to be intolerant. Those are pretty mixed messages, and I don't know how a child adapts to that kind of education. I certainly don't believe that hate is a family value. And sometimes when we're trying to teach children to be safe and make good decision and stay within the perimeters of their religious beliefs, we are teaching some hate. We're certainly teaching prejudice.
Q: Some therapists say that having gay clubs in the school is bad because kids can be label. They've said adolescence is a very malleable time, as you said a time of experimentation. And these therapist say we can't label kids because they're very impressionable and they could be suck with a label the rest of their lives. So, these clubs are not a good idea.
A: The fear is that we are going to attach a label that they won't outgrow or shift or find their own truth in, and I don't think that holds true to the nature of adolescence. If we're afraid that gay kids are going to be labeled in schools as a result of the club we're missing the point that gay kids are already labeled and have not the resource of a club. It's, not going to prevent the hostility. It's not going to prevent the ostracism, to deprave them of a support source. And I don't believe it's going to further that either.
Nobody is going to force somebody to sign up for a club. If they choose to do that either as a gay person or as an ally of gay people that is their own determination. It's not that the school's attaching a label or a counselor's attaching a label. I certainly understand that parents would be nervous about that. Fearful for what will happen to their child if they do align in that way or if they do identify in that way. That needs careful consideration and hopefully discussion within the context of the family. But to deprave kids of the support group for fear that that's going to designate them as one way of being for the rest of their lives is ludicrous. That would justify removing all clubs from schools always.
Q: I am not sure what you've read about the East High Multi-Cultural Assembly, but the GSA kids created that segment in the assembly that had factual information in it regarding the origin of the words "faggot," "dike," "lesbian," etc. As I was told, they were trying to get kids to understand the words they were saying, and what they really meant. And also to know more about homosexual culture (the term "culture" being debated), but they hoped this might bring about more tolerance. Instead people were outraged. Will you talk about that, the assembly and the reaction?
I think that those students are acting as leaders in this community and
facilitating an education that many adults in this community are reluctant
to take part in. They were offering facts about the gay experience. The
names of famous people that we all know who are gay and lesbian role models.
What the movement has been about. Some of the hateful slurs and how that
effects people. Is that bad information?
For whatever reason, these kids have been strong enough to say, okay, but we're not going to shut up, and they keep bringing it to the table and bringing it to table. And this is something that I think is an incredibly courageous way. I guess, in my heart of hearts, I wish that parents were mandated to attend rather than being afraid of what they didn't see; maybe they need to be present.
Q: Let's talk about what kinds of support do teenagers need at that age.
A: There was
a study done nationally with high school counselors, and they were interviewing
them about their perceptions with regard to gay and lesbian youth and
the needs of gay and lesbian youth. Two-thirds of those counselors expressed
negative feelings about these kids, and these are the very kids that they
are in place to counsel. When the students were interviewed about it,
they knew that there is a lack of support. They know that the resource
are just not available. They don't know where to turn when they're grappling
with this huge crisis in their life ;they have no one to talk to about
If the school can't provide a club, I think that there ought to be information within the club about where they can find it, where the resources are. Coalitions ought to be built, people ought to come together around the issue of how we can safely guide students through adolescence. How can we safely incorporate this rather than hide our head in the sand? Around issues of homosexuality. I think things like the assembly, to have a diversity day is a great idea; to let people know factual information about the life experience of gay teens, of gay adults; to have role models, they're lacking. We're asking these kids to grow up in a vacuum.
Q: What advice to you give or would you give to a parent whose child is struggling with sexual identity. As you've mentioned some kids are thrown out of the house, turn away or abused.
A: I don't underestimate at all the turmoil that this can bring to a parent's life. To discover that their child is gay or lesbian, and that the hope and the dreams that they had for that child have been forever altered. Ironically, it's almost a parallel experience to the gay person themselves. When they come into the awareness and have to reconcile what I thought my life would be, with what my choices are now?
I guess what I would caution parents the most is to suspend judgement, minimize damage. When there's the part about weeping and wailing and gnashing teeth and confusion and fear and grief, that you find an ally. That you find a safe place to talk about that. Hopefully, it's someone who's already been there, that has some information a little bit further down the road. It's very difficult in our community because I find that many people wrestle with this in total isolation. They're afraid that the neighbors will know. They're afraid that if other people in their church community hear, they'll be ostracized or their child might be somehow punished, within the confines of the church. There is fear, there is misunderstanding; the parent fear that they will be judged, that they'll be blamed for creating this, that their whole family will be scrutinized, and that they'll find themselves on the outside instead of in the inner circle where they're used to being.
So, to get accurate information and to find support sources in this community, we have some incredible resources in that regard with Family Fellowship and PFLAG. They're there to educate they're not there to tell you what to believe or how to reconcile or what to feel about this, but just to offer support and maybe a bird's eye view of where they'd been.
Q: Some "therapists" I spoke with were adamant about abuse being a cause of homosexuality. One sighted up to 80 percent of people he treats admit to some kind of abuse whether it's sexual or mental… they also sight that dysfunctional parenting meaning that not identify with one parent male or female cause this… Would you comment on that?
A: I think that is the most dangerous and irresponsible that a clinician can assume. It is not based on scientific research, and, in fact, it has been refuted by the research. A lot of times people who align with that kind of philosophy will cite statistic and literature and data from anecdotal reports, from studies that have not been published in professional journals; those have not been scrutinized by peers in the profession. Or studies that can't be replicated, studies that don't stand up with any longitudinal data. We're blaming the parents. We're blaming, we're blaming people who come to experience this in a very natural way in their lives: we've got to find out what's wrong, what caused it so we can find a cure for it! I think that it is incredibly damaging to people who are struggling as honestly as they can to make sense of a circumstance in their life that they didn't choose. I don't know if I answered your question.
Q: One last question, mainly here in our community what is that answer to all this conflict and division over this issue? What would you like to see happen or done? Are you optimistic?
A: Yeah, I wish I had the answer for it. I wish someone had the answer for it. I think several things need to happen. We've got to stop discussing this as a behavior. We need to stop discussing this as moral or immoral. We need to pay attention to the voice and experience of the people who have lived it and stop looking to authorities who have never personally tangled with this. To be the voice, to be the expert.
I guess what I would like most in my dreams, would be for the LDS church to exercise its significant influence in this community: to set a new standard for the dialogue that we can have around this; to open the dialogue; that we stop talking about the right or wrong and we start talking about the what is; that we start educating each other about our life experiences.
I wonder what would happen in an LDS ward if the family of gay son were asked to come and speak in sacrament meeting. To speak to their experience, what it's been like; what the struggle is; what they believe. To soften the hearts and to end the hysteria around this topic. And certainly to confront the ignorance that in no way justifies prejudice. It's time that we educate, that we listen, and perhaps the children will lead us.
Q: Is there anything you'd like to add?
A: This is not in response to any direct question, but when we talk about homosexuality, if we flip the issue over and we ask the same questions about heterosexuality, they sound absurd. "When did you come to know? Is this just because you were abused? Is is because you haven't had a really good gay experience, is that the problem? Did you have a bad relationship with your same sex parent?" The questions are absurd, but we can ask it of the minority because we say it's different, it's wrong, that clearly something's broken because it doesn't align with the norm.
So, let's figure out what broken here. If you want to take a look at how offensive some of the questions that we ask are, trying them on, on a heterosexual person and see the confusion about the question. It feels the same way for gay people.
And to question about whether or not teachers, we should have gay teachers in school...gay kids do not have role models. That's one of things that sets them apart and puts them at great risk. They don't know that you get to incorporate all of the pieces of your life in a way that makes sense. We know heterosexual teachers in school. Does that give them license to talk about their sex lives or who they're sleeping with? Or what they're doing? Of course it doesn't. It's simply known, and we hopefully behave accordingly. I mean responsibly, teachers know the perimeters there. Why would that be different if it were known that a teacher were gay or lesbian? The same parameters apply. Same rules.