Gary Watts traces his family history in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints back five generations. He is proud of parts of it, but the 70-year-old Utah man and his wife ended their affiliation with the church this year, disgusted over its treatment of gays.
Reparative therapy is the worst example of that treatment, Gary Watts says.
“I would strongly encourage individuals to avoid any therapists who suggest it,” he says. “These untrained therapists are attempting to appease ecclesiastical leaders who cling to the outmoded idea that homosexuality is chosen and changeable and an affront to their God.”
Watts, a retired radiologist, and his wife, Millie, live in Provo, Utah, and remain active members of the Mormon community. They cofounded Family Fellowship, a support group for gay Mormons and their relatives. Two of the Watts’ six children are gay, and the negative comments their children received from the church alienated the couple from their otherwise beloved congregation. No one offered the Watts’ children (now adults) reparative therapy, but many church members and the doctrine itself made clear that becoming straight or celibate was the only way to stay in the church.
LDS support of Proposition 8 pushed the Watts even farther away.
“Relationships between the LDS Church and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community are at an all-time low,” Gary Watts says.
Most Mormons are aware of the church’s use of reparative therapy — in which homosexuality is treated as a mental disorder that can be cured through counseling and heterosexual relationships. However, based on interviews with dozens of current and former church members, few Mormons are aware of aversion therapy. Aversion therapy uses physical techniques to alter behavior, such as inducing vomiting. Electroshock, for instance, was the aversion therapy of choice at Brigham Young University in the 1970s.
Opinions differ among Mormons on the use of aversion therapy.
San Francisco writer Donna Banta, 51, attended BYU from 1976-1980 and never heard of aversion therapy. She left the church in 1998 and has since learned about it from other ex-Mormons.
“The LDS Church is all about secrets,” she says. “I’m amazed now by what I didn’t know.”
Robert Rees, 74, of Boulder Creek, a humanities professor who has taught at UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and other California universities, loves his church but opposes reparative therapy. He has served in many church positions, including bishop, at wards in Santa Cruz and the San Lorenzo Valley.
“As a bishop, I had a number of homosexuals in my congregation,” Rees says. “There was not one who had been able to change his or her innermost feelings of sexual orientation, in spite of often heroic efforts to do so.”
Rees says he knows several former Mormons who remain physically and mentally scarred from shock therapy. He says the church has a “moral obligation” to apologize to those it harmed through the practice.
Still, Rees remains committed to the church and the considerable good he sees in it. There is “much healing” society needs to achieve regarding homosexuality, he says.
Due to the church’s support of 2009 legislation that protects Utah gays from discrimination, the church has been able to cast itself as far more progressive than its reputation suggests. Indeed, the church actually is more progressive in its treatment of gays than some outsiders suspect. For instance, of the approximately 30 Mormons interviewed for this series, nearly all said they want gay couples to have the same legal rights as straight couples. They don’t want gays to be able to be married in their church, but said they would be willing to help civil unions gain broader freedoms.
A dividing factor has been that media reports only share divisive quotes, says Alameda lawyer and LDS missionary organizer Jay Pimentel. He says many fellow Mormons have told reporters that they want gay couples to have every legal right as straight couples, but that this viewpoint rarely, if ever, makes it into print or on air.
Another active Mormon said the church and BYU shouldn’t be blamed for their actions.
“You have to remember that at the time homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychological Association,” says Joshua, 30, a Union City computational linguist who considered himself gay before marrying his wife. “The therapies that were conducted were standard at the time.”
Joshua, who requested that his last name not be used, attends Evergreen counseling, a conversion counseling program for Mormons, but has never experienced aversion therapy.
Alyssa Johanson, a 29-year-old research scientist, Union City resident and self-described loyal Mormon, says what took place at BYU in the late 1970s was a “violent and emotionally disruptive psychology experiment gone awry” that caused “scarring effects.”
“Even considering homosexuality as a mental illness is problematic,” Johanson says.
But Johanson does support talk-based forms of conversion counseling.
“I do feel that people have the ability to manage their sexual attractions, regardless of whether they experience same-sex or opposite-sex attractions,” she says. “And, for those who wish to change sexual orientation, I know that the process of changing is often long and emotionally painful, and requires a great deal of self-discovery, honesty and I would say a healthy dose of the healing power only available from God.”
What do church leaders think of reparative therapy? LDS spokespeople do not allow interviews with church leaders on the topic. Instead, officials referred Bay Area News Group to online transcripts of interviews with high-ranking LDS officials Elder Dallin Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, and Elder Lance Wickman, a member of the “Seventy.”
Oaks says the church “rarely takes a position on which treatment techniques are appropriate, for medical doctors or for psychiatrists or psychologists and so on.”
Oaks did not specifically mention aversion therapy at BYU or conducted by Mormon groups, but did mention it generally.
“The aversive therapies that have been used in connection with same-sex attraction have contained some serious abuses that have been recognized over time within the professions,” Oaks says. “While we have no position about what the medical doctors do, we are conscious that there are abuses and we don’t accept responsibility for those abuses.”
Watts, the retired radiologist, says reparative therapy just doesn’t work, based on his experience supporting hundreds of gay people through his Family Fellowship support group. However, he does think counselors can be helpful to homosexual clients who are in heterosexual marriages and don’t want to break up the family.
“If there have been no children in such marriages, however, the probability of both partners finding greater happiness in leaving the marriage is much greater,” says Watts, who nonetheless added, “This is a generalization. One size does not fit all.”