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Some claim a 'cure,' but gays dispute the illness Groups clash over whether homosexuality should be viewed as aberration or lifestyle

October 10, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Those who consider homosexuality a treatable disorder point to a recent study that indicates that about one-fourth of people who enter therapy to change their sexual attractions succeed.

The study last year by Houston MacIntosh, of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Washington, found that 23 percent of about 1,200 homosexual men and women around the country lost their "homosexual urges" and developed the capacity to love the opposite sex.

Charles W. Socarides, a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says the study "puts the lie to the idea that no homosexual ever changes."

"Certain homosexuals can be successfully treated by psychotherapeutic means," says Dr. Socarides, who has counseled hundreds of homosexuals. "If this were just a gay gene, nobody would be changing. But they are changing."

However, such therapists emphasize that therapy is not a cure and that treatment goals include growth in self-acceptance and alleviation of guilt. "Psychoanalysts do not expect that patients will change," says Dr. MacIntosh. "If it happens, fine. If it doesn't happen, that's fine too."

Analysts who practice reparative therapy -- treating homosexuality as a disorder -- generally agree with Freud that homosexuality in men is a developmental problem often resulting from early problems between father and son.

Mr. Nicolosi of NARTH says he has treated more than 200 men during the last 12 years and found that "the male homosexual . . . did not gain an adequate sense of his own masculine identity from his father, so he seeks out that masculinity through homosexual contacts."

Psychologists who work with lesbians unhappy with their sexuality say such women typically have experienced some type of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children, particularly from emotionally distant parents.

Therapists who consider homosexuality a disorder also cite compulsive, addictive behavior among some gays. A 1978 study published by the Kinsey Institute found that 28 percent of homosexual males had sexual encounters with 1,000 or more partners. Seventy-nine percent in the study said more than half of their partners were strangers.

Countering such findings is the American Psychiatric Association, which holds that a disorder should either regularly cause emotional distress or impair social functioning. Homosexuality does not meet these criteria, the APA has concluded.

"A significant portion of gay and lesbian people clearly were satisfied with their sexual orientation and showed no signs of psychopathology," says an April 1993 APA report.

Richard Isay, former chairman of the APA's committee on gay and lesbian affairs, says attempts to change someone's sexuality can result in "psychological damage to the person," causing depression and anxiety.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that sexual orientation can be changed," he says.

Gregory Lehne, a psychologist on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says he's had a number of patients who have gone through religious ex-gay programs. Such programs appear to help people decrease homosexual attractions but fail to increase heterosexual attractions, he concludes.

"People in these groups had their hopes really encouraged that they could eliminate their homosexual interests, and they went through a lot of depression when they found out they could not," Dr. Lehne says.

He also calls the religious ex-gay approach wrongheaded because it assumes homosexuality is immoral and tries to change a person's basic orientation. "Instead of . . . encouraging people to accept themselves, they devote their energy to turning people against themselves," he says.

Therapists and gay activists who deny the possibility of change also point to recent genetic studies as proof that homosexuality is inborn.

Some genetic basis

In highly simplified terms, genetic studies have shown that sexual orientation in men may be influenced by heredity. One study has found a correlation between an area of the X chromosome and male homosexuality, although the author emphasizes that other factors may be involved.

Other research found an anatomical difference in the brains of cadavers of homosexual and heterosexual men. A third study showed a higher rate of homosexuality among identical twins than fraternal twins.

The studies point to the probability of a genetic link for homosexuality, but scientists also acknowledge that the research has not isolated a specific gay gene, or ruled out the interaction of other genes, the brain and the environment.

The two most vocal factions in this debate -- gay activists and religious conservatives -- are unlikely to be swayed by new information about what causes people to be gay and whether they can -- or should -- change.

The former have a vested interest in proving they are normal; the latter are convinced homosexuality is a perversion of God's intentions. What the scientists say will not make much difference to either.

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