The culture wars have come roaring back to life. For many, including historian Andrew Hartmann, author of A War for the Soul of America, the utility of the term “culture wars” had exhausted itself by the mid-2010s. One election can change everything, though, including how we examine the recent past.
I read Hartmann’s excellent book after the 2016 election. Things have changed in President Donald Trump’s America — the historical and contemporary importance of the culture wars have returned to prominence. This is especially the case for the topic of my dissertation — the history of “conversion therapy” from the 1920s to today. Indeed, if anything, the battle over these controversial (and many say, extraordinarily dangerous) therapeutic and counseling practices remains one of the most contentious in the nation.
Over the past thirty years, conversion therapy’s position in the culture wars has centered on the question of what constitutes the scientific study of sexuality. In the early 1990s, two studies changed the way many Americans thought about the science of homosexuality. Simon LeVay’s research on hypothalamic structure launched a new wave of biological research on male sexuality. LeVay found that parts of the hypothalamus, the section of the brain responsible for attachment behavior, were nearly twice as large in the heterosexual men than the homosexual men in his sample.
In 1993, a team at the National Institutes of Health led by Dean Hamer discovered a stronger linkage between male homosexuality and biology. After conducting a family pedigree study on 114 families of gay men, Hamer theorized that male homosexuality might be a sex-linked trait. His study of forty pairs of homosexual brothers found a linkage on Xq28, a region on the “long arm” of the chromosome the men inherited from their mothers.
Over the next few decades, these two studies, along with subsequent ones, transformed Americans’ understandings of homosexuality. In short, genetics research became a critical flashpoint for both sides in the culture wars as many gay and lesbian rights activists tried to convince the public that they were “born this way.”
Conversion therapists, including neo-Freudian psychoanalysts, reparative therapists, and ex-gay ministers, challenged these studies. After LeVay’s research was published, Focus on the Family claimed that “homosexual activists” were using “poor science to ‘prove’ that their sexual preference is biological destiny.” Hamer’s study, which could be seen as corroborating evidence for LeVay’s, was an especially serious threat to the psychosexual theories that supported conversion therapy.
Responding to Hamer’s study two weeks after its publication, R. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, accused Hamer and his team of conducting “ideologically-driven science.” Although scientists had “replaced the black-robed clergy as the nation’s high priests,” Mohler wrote, Americans must recognize that “science is not value-neutral in all respects, and is often forced into the service of a political, commercial, or ideological agenda.” The issue with this, however, is that conversion therapists’ own ideologies, namely their religious beliefs and conservative family values worldview, inform their therapeutic and counseling practices.
Instead of recognizing this (at least in public), some religious and social conservatives, like the founders of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which included Joseph Nicolosi, Charles Socarides, and Benjamin Kaufman, placed blame elsewhere. In 1991, Joseph Nicolosi wrote how the “combined effects of the sexual revolution and ‘rights’ movements — civil rights, minority rights, feminist rights — have resulted in an intimidating effect on psychology,” a climate that, in his estimation, halted psychiatric studies on homosexuality.
Kaufman agreed. He believed that a politically charged environment stifled the scientific study of same-sex desires. Kaufman once wrote that a form of circular logic had taken root in professional medical organizations, like the American Psychiatric Association, that issued warnings about the dangers of reparative and conversion therapy. He thought that these statements indicated political cooperation with gay rights groups, which activists then used as proof that the intersecting worlds of medicine and science were on their side.
Although more than twenty-five years old at this point, the battle is still being waged — in legislatures and courts and on social media. California has taken the lead in efforts to ban conversion therapy, recently debating a bill that calls these practices consumer fraud. Conversion therapists, for their part, have evolved in their efforts to win the culture wars. They are currently arguing that these bans violate the “religious liberty” of both themselves and their patients and that “talk therapy” is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
The clash between LGBTQ+ rights groups and religious conservatives remains alive and well. If the history of conversion therapy in the culture wars offers any lessons, though, it’s this: the struggle will continue, as there’s no clear end in sight.
Christopher M. Babits was recently named a 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellow at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California.