Shaming the Gay Away

Are there really two sides to the conversion therapy debate?

Photo by ThinkStock

Yesterday on NPR, a reporter interviewed two men who had wildly different experiences with conversation therapy (also known as “reparative” therapy), billed as a way to “pray the gay away.” And while the subject itself has drawn a lot of heat lately – especially since it was uncovered that presidential contender Michele Bachmann’s husband’s own clinic supports the therapy in hopes of turning gays straight – an even bigger debate looms about how the media is handling this issue. It seems to rear its head every time the LGBT community begins making certain strides in the country.

But what impact do these testimonials by so-called “former gays” really have on the LGBT community at a time when marriage equality and other issues are at the forefront of legislation and the public dialogue about civil rights?

We’re not the only ones asking, apparently. Since airing the interviews, NPR has landed in a bit of trouble. Bloggers, gay magazines and advocates have all criticized the new agency’s handling of the subject, accusing them of not providing all the details that would allow listeners to form fair and unbiased opinions. There’s also the worry that these “reformed gays” are scoring a tremendous about of air time to perpetuate their religiously driven cause – dismissing any theory that homosexuality could be genetic.

Are people buying it?

In NPR’s case, Alix Spiegel interviewed the two men about their very personal experiences – giving them both the same platform on which to share their thoughts about whether homosexuality can be changed. The first source – a man named Rich Wyler – says his feelings for other men shifted from love to a sense of brotherhood after taking part in this controversial therapy, while the second man – Peterson Toscano – admits that the therapy was mentally damaging. “It’s destructive,” he told Spiegel, saying it made him feel less of a human being for being gay.


What wasn’t mentioned in the report – and what has critics fuming – is that Wyler operates a program called “Journey into Manhood” that accepts money to help gay men be cured of their homosexuality. It costs several hundred dollars to attend one of the events, which is operated by People Can Change, a group Wyler founded.

Without knowing that Wyler is a provider of such therapy – a therapy that the American Psychological Association says has no merit – the story leaves out a pretty important fact: This guy makes money from suggesting that sexuality is a choice. “The actual dynamic between me and the male world shifted,” Wyler told the NPR reporter, saying he’s heterosexual now.

But Toscano challenges the need for such therapy, calling it traumatic. At one point he was asked by a conversion therapist to document every sexual experience he ever had with another man – and to share those detailed, deeply sexual experiences with his family.

Perhaps “praying the gay away” should really be called “shaming the gay away.” Because if anyone really thinks this sort of thing works to “cure” homosexuality, then the same would have to be true for heterosexuality. And so far there have been no stories about that in the news.