NPR got itself in the middle of the storm when it focused on Marcus Bachmann's gay conversion therapy clinic last Monday (listen to the story here), the network's ombudsman says today.
Bachmann, the husband of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, runs a mental health clinic that includes counseling for gay clients. ABC News produced this expose a few weeks ago.
In the NPR story, it was this quote that got the listeners calling and e-mailing:
"So these two men represent two sides of a debate that's been raging in psychological circles for more than a decade," said the reporter, Alix Spiegel. "One side feels that therapies which seek to make gay people straight are invariably harmful, the other, that those therapies can help gay people who are profoundly uncomfortable with their same-sex attraction."
That, the ombudsman said, created the appearance of two sides of a story deserving of equal balance -- or so those complaining said. Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos said the story deserved more depth, but he defended tackling the question of therapy designed to make gay people not gay.
All this suggests that what many people think of as "conversion" therapy is really not. The lines are blurry between conversion and identity therapy and between real and effective change in sexual orientation, identity and priority. A story that helps us understand the differences might uncover that in the public debate, many of us are talking past each other. I am curious, for example, to know what really it is that Bachman's husband practices, or what kind of therapy Wyler underwent.
Wyler himself says in the piece that while he didn't feel right living a gay life in Los Angeles, far from his family and church, he understood that it was right for others. I took that to mean that he didn't denounce being gay, or think it was wrong.
Gay rights advocates understandably demand that, rather than trying to change individuals, it is religion and society that must change, which indeed has been happening. But that doesn't help conflicted individuals who are in this world we live in now. To dismissively say that these individuals should just find another religion is to be discriminatory and ignores the profound importance of a given religion in many people's lives.
There's another more common mistake in the story -- "Can Therapy Help Change Sexual Orientation?" It asked a question in the headline that it didn't answer in the story.
Any reading of this ombudsman's column should include the comments section. The commenters make it clear why NPR really blew it on this story.
Related story on CNN posted yesterday:
Psychological association calls for legalization of same-sex marriage
I've been deeply embedded in these kinds of discussions for nearly two decades, starting with being challenged by a few close family and friends to adopt an ex-gay perspective instead of coming out as gay. I've worked closely with Peterson Toscano, the gay-affirming interviewee, in the past, and I spent many years trying to forge mutually respectful relationships with ex-gay leaders.
One aspect of comparing mainstream, gay-affirming therapy and general perspectives with ex-gay therapy and perspectives is this: The supporters of ex-gay therapies will promote their efforts as gentle, benign, just wanting to help those who want the help, and yet simultaneously align themselves, more quietly behind the scenes, with the most virulently hateful anti-gay political groups.
So, when the news media seeks to give different sides equal time, one side is likely to bring credible, verifiable evidence, and the other brings feel-good quotes, no objective facts, while carefully cloaking support for, and links with, certified hate groups.
That dichotomy is evident in this paragraph by Schumacher-Matos:
Responding to another criticism from listeners, Spiegel and Gudenkauf acknowledge that they should have reported on air that Wyler founded an organization that claims to help men who have same-sex attraction to change. But they said that Toscano, too, profits from his experience, writing a play and giving speeches about it.
Wyler co-founded a group which sponsors weekend retreats for men conflicted about being gay, charging each of them $650, and is secretive about the events. Toscano has spoken, and written and performed 1-person plays. His writings and performances have all been open to the public and open to discussion. While his ex-gay experiences still contribute to his professional life at times, his focus shifted to transgender issues a couple years ago.
That's a big difference: Individuals putting themselves in the hands of Wyler's organization, at significant cost, free of public access or review, versus Toscano speaking and performing publicly to groups, at little or no cost to individuals, always open to discussion and review.
I'm gay, so obviously I'm not the least bit objective on this issue. But to me, this is an example of the way NPR sometimes bends over backwards to avoid even the slightest hint of liberal bias, and winds up presenting an indefensible fringe point of view as being worthy of serious consideration. The idea of "curing" homosexuality through prayer is cruel, manipulative, severely damaging, and unsupported by a single shred of scientific data. I like Alix Spiegel's work quite a bit, but hiding behind the notion that "our listeners are well informed about LGBT issues" is either an outright dodge, or a shockingly misinformed perspective on what many, many Americans actually think about gay people.
Mr. Bachmann's (note: not Dr. Bachmann, since he isn't licensed and his Ph.D. in psychology is highly suspect) bigoted approach to counseling deserves to be an issue in the campaign, as do the Bachmanns' many, many other borderline crazy opinions on how other people should live their lives. NPR does the country no favors by refusing to point out extremism.
Gosh, i don't know, I am leaning towards Jon Stewart's analysis that maybe Marcus is the one who is uncomfortable with his true sexuality. (Not that there is anything wrong with it)
An architect I once worked with summed up the whole relationship thing like this: It is really about liking/loving a person for who they are and gender really has nothing to do with it.
I am a firm believer in being yourself. I agree with the article in that it is religion and society that needs to adjust.