A Presentation by Stephen Marshall-Ward, M.A, D.S.Mus. & Michael S. McGarry, Ph.D., Psychologist
Conversion Therapy must be replaced with healthy and affirming practices. By looking at history, data, changing understandings, effectiveness, religious and political influences, and personal stories, we will demonstrate how mental health professionals, religious institutions, school systems, families, and individuals can learn and understand practices of hope, healing, and celebration.
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[Stephen] What is conversion “therapy”? Conversion “therapy” is a process whereby an attempt is made to convert a person from what the converters consider “abnormal behavior” to “normal behavior” – in my case, over an eight-year period, this was centered around my sexual orientation. In this time I gained a lot of experience and understanding around conversion “therapy”. Michael is here to speak from a clinical perspective and I am here to speak from an experiential perspective.
[Michael] For thirty years I was a clinical psychologist in private practice and I retired a couple years ago. In those years of private practice I had upwards of 100 referrals from clients who were either refugees of conversion “therapy” or were referred because of well meaning families, churches, and organizations who were seeking to change the sexuality of their children. Stephen and I both feel very passionately about this topic. We come from two different places but come to a similar point of wanting to dispel myths about this so-called “therapy”, which is sometimes called conversion “therapy” or reparative “therapy”. Our purpose in doing this workshop is to invite people in the NAMI community, and forward thinking people in general, to replace these destructive ways of addressing differentness with healthy, affirming practices. We couldn’t think of a better place to start than here at the NAMI convention.
I learned a lot from clients about what helps people grow and what impedes that growth. Self acceptance is the key. Louise Hay, who I admire very much and who wrote the book You Can Heal Your Life, said, “We create our experience in life out of our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.” Whereas Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The acceptance of significant others, families, communities, and agencies are helpful but you must be comfortable in your own skin. There have been great testimonials about organizations such as PFLAG and the Trevor Project. Having community resources like these, having a toolkit of loving support, and having cognitive skills such as affirmation, intentional thinking, clear boundaries, assertiveness skills, and a sense of your own spirituality is important. Wayne Dyer says, “We are all spiritual beings having a human experience” instead of the other way around. Even if you don’t ascribe to a dogma, if you have a sense of life being bigger than you then you don’t have to go through it alone and you can find support and connection. In my clinical experience – in addition to self-acceptance – resilience and determination are required to facilitate survival. This helps you to fight against the demonization, abuse, judgement, and shaming of others who disapprove of anything outside their norm. So many of the clients that came to me had internalized negative messages about themselves and most of the work for me involved removing those impediments to their natural growth and celebration of their true selves that was created by believing others who said things for their own good that were in fact not intransigently good. Many of the clients were in such a dark place that they would consider giving up on life, that they were losing their grip. What I taught them, or what they learned for themselves in a safe place, was resilience and determination.
I would encourage you to extend yourselves to the people you care about and enlist their support because it is going to take a lot of people speaking up and making changes at a molecular level in order to create an environment that is more conducive for young gay and lesbian people.
[Stephen] As I worked on this presentation I observed in myself a couple interesting realities. At first I felt overwhelmed by the return horrible feelings of sadness that I had experienced through this whole process. Though I am pleased that it was only for a short time, I am glad I felt those negative feelings again. If nothing else to remind me what I had been through, what so many people have been through, and what so many people are going through now as we sit here today in this room. Ultimately though, I have come around to the reality of how very fortunate and blessed I am to have survived, to be loved, to have discovered hope, grace, celebration, and peace. I am grateful to be surrounded by my immediate family and friends with whom I share love, support, and care.
Think about ways that damaging practices have been in your life or that you have observed in someone else’s life. Throughout the history of humanity many damaging philosophies, teachings, and ultimately abusive practices have burst forth from places of fear, ignorance, bigotry, hate, and religious (yet godless) syndromes of superiority. Abuse, no matter what its origin, is still abuse. To change these abusive practices one has to change the fear based ignorant and hateful philosophies and teachings that fuel them. In each of these historical circumstances, in order for change to begin to blossom, many people had to suffer incredible abuse and temporary loss of self, survive to tell about it, and contribute their stories to the narrative. Stories are critical. A great place to begin is with compassionate learning. Learning has been a huge part of my understanding. Not one of the transformations in my life in me came to me because of reparative therapy. Not one transformation. The machinery needed to abuse, disrespect, and oppress me was fueled by fear, misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, and a sad absence of any wisdom. My will to survive came from my desire to truly understand, to learn, to educate myself, and to courageously call out the abuse. Then, and only then, was I able to enter into a path toward true personal, psychological, and spiritual freedom. The machinery used to cut through the abuse and clear a path was fueled by courage, hope, grace, and love. There is a better way.
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