There’s no doubt that with the California state legislature passing a bill to ban therapies aimed at trying to “change” the sexual orientation of minors, “reparative therapy” is once again going to make headlines. I was in a form of reparative therapy in British Columbia, Canada, for six years, after which I filed a medical malpractice suit against my former psychiatrist, “Dr. Alfonzo,” for treating my homosexuality as a disease. If this new law in California is to be criticized, it is because the use of “change” therapies on people older than 18 should be prohibited as well. I was 24 when I met Dr. Alfonzo, 31 when I left his therapy, and almost 40 when the lawsuit ended in an out-of-court settlement in 2003.

In 1989 I entered Dr. Alfonzo’s care after coming out as gay and being rejected by my family. Within months, Alfonzo presented me with conflicting causation theories, said that I would never be happy as a homosexual, that my same-sex desires were the result of faulty parenting, and so my body had been trained, “through years of homosexual activity,” to respond only to men. To help reclaim my “innate heterosexuality,” Alfonzo directed me to release my anger and to feel my pain in an effort to “unlearn the error” of my homosexuality. My therapy would be like “peeling an onion,” he said. With each layer of childhood pain that I “worked through,” my false, homosexual identity would drop away to reveal my true, heterosexual self.

Three years into the therapy I suffered a physical and mental breakdown precipitated by prolonged, near-fatal doses of five concurrent psychotropic medications, one of the many ways Alfonzo “helped” suppress my libido so that I could “flip over to the other side” (to heterosexuality). When it became clear, despite the medications and near-daily “feeling therapy,” that my same-sex erotic desires were not diminishing, Alfonzo ordered me to bottle my feces and to sniff it whenever I was attracted to a man. “You need to be reminded where homosexual men stick their penis,” he said. “You need to be reminded that homosexual relations are not pleasurable.” When none of that worked—I was still attracted to men, only now all erotic desire seemed to elicit the smell of feces—Alfonzo threatened to hook my genitals up to electrodes. “Without my help,” he told me weeks later, “you’ll probably just get AIDS and die.”

In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a malpractice suit against Alfonzo on the grounds, among others, that he had treated my homosexuality in an effort to change me into a heterosexual. As the years dragged on, however, it became increasingly clear that the focus of the lawsuit would have less to do with what Alfonzo had or had not done in an effort to “change” my homosexuality, and more with whether or not homosexuality, as a medically definable category, was still considered “treatable.” Citing the American Psychiatric Association’s then (and current) position that homosexuality was still considered “a problem to be addressed when it caused distress to an individual,” defense lawyers claimed that Alfonzo had not treated my homosexuality, per se, but my “persistent and marked distress about sexual orientation.”

Reparative therapy “works,” for those who end up claiming to have changed from gay to straight, by dissociation: The person undergoing treatment is viewed as separate from their sexuality, and so they dissociate themselves from everything they have conflated with the idea of “being gay.” In retrospect I could see that I had always objectified my sexuality; for nearly six years I had talked about “leaving homosexuality” as if “the gay world” was a thing in itself, some “thing” that I could leave behind, move beyond. But if my experiences taught me anything it was that a change to the “map” of my identity from homosexual to heterosexual would never change the “territory” of my experience from same-sex to opposite-sex desire. A map is not the territory it represents.

“Chasing symbols is like settling for the map instead of the territory,” Deepak Chopra once wrote. “It creates anxiety; it ends up making you feel hollow and empty, because you exchange your Self for the symbols of your Self.” Reparative therapy confuses the map for the territory: The patient erroneously believes that by changing their map of identity they will also, perhaps through an act of providence or magical thinking, change their territory of experience. They don’t. What they do experience while in treatment is cognitive dissonance (identifying as heterosexual while experiencing same-sex erotic desire), and they often leave treatment dissociated, depersonalized, depressed, and, at times, suicidal.

The idea that reparative therapy “repairs” anything, let alone changes erotic desire, is, to paraphrase author Joan Didion, a story we have told ourselves in order to survive. When we talk about reparative therapy we are really talking about suppression of desire, about dissociation, depersonalization—we are talking about the incommensurable trauma that lives on in the person who has undergone what I now consider to be psychic lobotomy, where the “surgeon” probes into the psychosexuality of the individual, cutting and scarring their way toward the establishment of a “different” sexuality, while the “patient,” severely undermined by lifelong messages of heteronormativity, becomes co-conspirator in their own loss of agency.

Enacting laws to make it illegal to practice reparative therapy on anyone under the age of 18 is only a start. Reparative therapy may be a lie, but the lie begins not with the idea that we can change from gay to straight, but with the belief that we are who the culture tells us we are, that a change to the map of our identity is a change to the territory of our experience. And no one, no matter what age, is safe from that.

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PETER GAJDICS has been published in numerous international journals, including The Advocate, The Q Review, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review/Worldwide, Gay Times, The Printed Blog, and Opium, where he won their 2009 500-word memoir contest. Peter has received a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and is an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation's "Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices." He lives in Vancouver, Canada, and can be contacted at [email protected]

5 responses to “Inside Change: What Actually Happens in ‘Ex-Gay’ Therapy”

  1. Jeffro says:

    While I believe this type of therapy is bad medicine, if you were 24 when you first began seeing Dr. Alonzo, how can you then file a malpractice suit years later? Didn’t you go to him and he not come knocking at your door? No offense, but that’s kind of bullshit.

  2. livex says:

    Jeffro, your comment is kind of bullshit.

    a) The question of “if you were 24 when you first began seeing Dr. Alonzo, how can you then file a malpractice suit years later?” is purely a matter of the time interval allowed by relevant law, and has nothing to do with the rest of your comment.

    b) Sure, the patient sought out the doctor. What do you think usually happens? Do you think no case for malpractice can ever be brought unless the doctor somehow seeks out the patient first?

    c) The core issue, though, is this: Peter was rejected by his family after he came out, and sought help in dealing with the pain and stress of that rejection. The doctor then essentially told him, “your problem isn’t that your family rejected you, your problem is that you’re gay.” A doctor is an authority figure and in a case like this the patient is often hurt and confused and liable to manipulation and undue influence. Peter was persuaded to go along with harmful ‘treatment’ based in bad medicine. That’s where the ground of the malpractice claim lies.

    • Jeffro says:

      You see a doctor for SIX years and then file malpractice? That’s what I find to be BS. Let’s not take what I said and run with it another way. This type of therapy that Peter describes is bullshit and bad medicine. No doubt about it. But to go again and again and again — for that long a period — I just don’t see how you can then file a lawsuit.

      If Peter were under the age of 18 — and was referred, forced, or pushed to go to this therapist by his parents or the state — I wouldn’t disagree with the malpractice claim. It would be 100% legit. This is part of what the CA state legislature addressed in their bill — that minors are being sent to these places and these doctors which are very harmful to their mental health, diagnosing “gay” as a condition to be treated, as if they are somehow broken and need to be repaired.

      However, when you’re over the age of 18 and you seek out a therapist — and then go to said therapist for that amount of time — no, I do not think you can file a malpractice suit. There is a level of personal responsibility for one’s decisions that is being ignored.

  3. Jill says:

    I’ve been a Gestalt therapist and a social worker for 15 years. If I ever dared tell anyone of any sexual orientation to bottle their own feces and smell it or that without me they’d die of AIDS – I’d be thrown in jail. As I should be. That “doctor” is a sadist and to say he lacked professional boundaries is being polite. He absolutely needs his liscence yanked immediately. Closet case anyone?

  4. Peter Gajdics says:

    I appreciate everyone’s comments, but I would like to address Jeffro’s, specifically. Due to the brevity of my article, granted, perhaps you did not fully appreciate the way my treatment escalated. You seem to think that a person simply “seeks” out this kind of therapist, or “decides” to go to this kind of therapy, and that from day one they are fully and consciously accountable for where said treatment leads. Your perspective undermines the way therapy, any kind of therapy, in general, progresses, the power difference between patients and therapists (in my case, a psychiatrist), not to mention familial dynamics and god knows whatever other psychological factors have been thrown into the mix. The fact is, therapy to try and “change” sexual orientation does not always start out that way (it did not in my own case), and even when it does end up there, oftentimes there are so many other variables at play that the patient, by then, cannot see outside of the box long enough to say “what a minute.” In my own situation, part of the doctor’s “treatment” was near fatal levels of various psychiatric medications, and so I was so extremely overmedicated that I could not rationally think about what I was doing from day to day, let alone realize that what the doctor was doing to me was “wrong” or counterproductive. If you want to read about what happened to me, I would suggest you check out some of my longer articles on TNB. Needless to say, by the time I left the therapy, withdrew from the medications, worked my way through the post traumatic stress and the realization of what had happened, I knew I had to do “something” about this doctor’s unethical behaviour, if only to be able to say publically, that it was wrong, and so I sued him. And, just to be clear, even “if” a person were to seek out a therapist to try and change their sexuality, and then stay with that therapist for many years, even then I do not think that gives that therapist free reign to tortue them. We do lots of things in life that are “bad for us,” sometimes we hurt ourselves terribly, and for all sorts of reasons–but psychiatrists, for example, are “supposed” to know better. Their job is to “do no harm.” But again, I really appreciate that you read my article, and for engaging in this kind of discussion. That, to me, is what it’s all about. Cheers….

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