Thursday, July 12, 2007

Shrinking the News...

A column by Peter Sheehy

"But my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know" -Alan Watts

Homosexuality on the Couch
Today the Detroit Free Press is reporting that the American Psychological Association is beginning a review of policies on “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy.” These controversial therapies are designed to change a patient’s sexual orientation.

Though the Bush administration’s nominee for Surgeon General (Dr. James W. Holsinger) is a proud homophobe who authored a "scientific" paper titled "Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality," (see yesterday's column) current American Psychological Association policy opposes treatment that regards homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1997 the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives passed a resolution on “reparative” therapy that

"urge[d] all mental health professionals to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientation."
The American Psychiatric Association issued a similar statement in 1998 through its Board of Trustees.

In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of mental disorders in the DSM. This decision, which was undoubtedly influenced by the gay rights movement, has been criticized by politically conservative psychiatrists and psychologists as an example of how scientific principles can be sacrificed to political agendas. These same arguments have re-emerged with the American Psychological Association’s exclusion of “certain conservative applicants” from the committee reviewing “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy” because of their “fundamentally negative religious perceptions of homosexuality."

The American Psychological Association’s director of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office (Clinton Anderson), has stated that the panel’s report would be grounded in scientific research rather than ideology.

While I hope that the American Psychological Association adopts a critical stance towards “reparative” or “conversion” therapies (yet allows those patients who desire such treatment to receive it, especially since talk therapy is based on free speech and the process by which patients re-describe themselves according to the dictates of their own imagination and conscience) I am not sure that defending such policies in the hallowed ground of science is entirely honest or necessary.

We should applaud the extent to which our culture’s increasingly more enlightened view of homosexuality has shaped medical experts’ approaches to homosexuality. There is nothing wrong with culture informing the clinical gaze. Thomas Kuhn taught us this decades ago in his magisterial The Structure of Scientific Revolutions .

The recently deceased philosopher Richard Rorty, one of the most original public intellectuals of the past thirty years, articulated a vision of a tolerant and diverse community committed to opposing cruelty (see Contingency, Irony and Solidarity ). The values of such a community -- one that surely respects the rights and dignity of homosexuals -- are determined not by claims to epistemological or scientific truths, but to pragmatic debates about the cruelty of certain social practices and the need for human solidarity.

For Rorty, it would be pointless to defend the dignity of homosexuals in scientific terms when it is enough to simply state that we all have an obligation to reduce suffering and obvious bigotry. In this case, the cruel stigmatizing of homosexuality as an identity that requires eradication through psychological or psychiatric care perpetuates suffering and destroys human dignity.

Shrinking the News is a column written by Peter Sheehy, who earned a PhD from the Department of History at the University of Virginia. His dissertation is on the cultural history of psychotherapy. Dr Sheehy teaches history at the Horace Mann School in New York City and is working on a book about the history of psychotherapy.

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