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Hong Kong Doc Defends Gay ’Conversion’ Class

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 20, 2011
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A Hong Kong doctor defended his "ex gay" regimen after GLBT equality activists decried the program, an AFP article posted at MSNBC reported on June 19.

The doctor, Hong Kwai-wah, a Hong Kong psychiatrist, gave over 60 government employees from the social services agency a training session lasting three and a half hours on the subject of "treating unwanted homosexuality," the AFP article reported.

The training session was decried by equality advocates as an attempt by the government to impose so-called "conversion therapy" on GLBT youths, the article said.

Dr. Hong, however, demurred, saying that his program was not an attempt at "reparative therapy," a religiously based type of treatment that attempts to "cure" gays through prayer and will power.

"The main point is not about gay conversion therapy," Hong told the press. "The main point is how to pay attention and give guidance to same-sex attracted youths and their parents, to understand their struggle and their needs."

While Hong says that his approach avoids the elements common to "reparative therapy," he does believe that gays can be "cured" -- that is to say, their innate sexual and romantic attraction toward members of the same gender can be re-focused on members of the opposite sex.

Such claims are regarded with skepticism by mainstream mental health professionals, who warn that attempts to "cure" gays can lead to patients who are cast into painful bouts of shame and confusion when their feelings of desire for members of the same gender to do evaporate, and when they fail to develop romantic or sexual feelings for people of the opposite gender.

There is some evidence to suggest that some people can set aside feelings of sexual attraction for those of the same gender, but what is unclear is whether such people are actually gay to begin with. Young people often experiment with same-sex relationships, for example, and then move on to heterosexuality on their own as they mature.

Others may be bisexual and choose to ignore or suppress their urges for romantic attachment for same-gender people.

However, many so-called "ex-gays" say that they "struggle" with sexual desire for members of the same gender on a daily basis. Others say that they have succeeded in eradicating their same-sex desires -- but never developed attraction for the opposite sex, leaving them with little or no conscious sexual desire at all, in a state of self-imposed asexuality.

One famously ex-gay former leader in the GLBT equality movement, Michael Glatze, was profiled recently in the New York Times. Glatze, who started a magazine for gay youth, declared himself heterosexual after a health crisis. Now 36, Glatze is a Bible school student and remains single.

Dr. Hong, however, is convinced that gays who wish to "convert" to heterosexuality can do it, and says that heterosexuality is an "option" that gays can pursue.

Anti-gay groups in America and elsewhere make similar claims, arguing that laws bolstering legal and social equality for gays do not protect a legitimate class of minorities, but rather give undeserved credence to practitioners of an "immoral lifestyle" who have "chosen" their sexual orientation.

"I did mention about the possibility to change which is an option" in the training, Hong told the media. "We need to respect the client’s choice, whether they want to remain status quo or they want to live a heterosexual life," he added.

Hong helped to found a group called the New Creation Association which, in text posted at the group’s website, pathologizes gays and transgenders, claiming to assist GLBTs who want to "restore their sexual wholeness and appreciate their gender identity given by God."

"I presented all these facts," said Hong, who reportedly referenced studies purporting to show that gays can "convert" and become heterosexual. "I want the social workers to know and make their own judgment; they are good enough and professional enough to make their own judgment."

Hong cast the training he provided in terms of enhancing the freedoms of GLBTs who are not happy with their innate sexuality or gender identity.

"We should not ban people from therapy if they want to change," said Hong. "We should respect their right" to pursue the sort of intimate lives they wish to live.

"I don’t believe gays are born gays," added the psychologist.

Groups that claim to offer "conversion" therapies often make the same statement, positing that homosexuality is either a "choice" or the result of early life traumas and deficiencies from gender role models. Those arguments hearken back to Freudian notions that a weak or distant father and an overbearing mother can confuse a young child’s notions of proper gender roles and lead to sexual desires that are focused on members of the same gender.

Never explained, however, is how gay youths remain gay despite self-loathing, punishment from their peers and from adults, and a constant bombardment of media messages portraying heterosexuality as normal, desirable, and necessary.

Meantime, a growing body of medical evidence points to a physiological basis for sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, including tantalizing studies that suggest that gays and straights have different brain structures. Moreover, several studies have confirmed that men with older brothers are more likely to be gay -- a result that strongly suggests that in utero hormone levels may play a significant role in determining whether a child will be prove to be gay or straight. Critics of "conversion therapy" warn that attempts to "cure" gays can have tragic outcomes.

A recent CNN broadcast on the fate of a young child treated by anti-gay crusader George Rekers in the 1970s because his parents feared that he was "too effeminate" underscores the dangers of attempting to "cure" gays.

As a 5-year-old, Kirk Murphy was taken by his parents to a program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kirk’s mother, the CNN article reported, was "becoming a little concerned, I guess, when he was playing with dolls and stuff."

The treatment Kirk received was administered by Rekers, then a doctoral student. Rekers subsequently wrote extensively about a subject he referred to as "Kraig,’ describing how a system of reward and punishment to deter "feminine" behavior resulted in a "normal" little boy. Rekers’ writings about his "success" with "Kraig" are still cited today by those who argue that homosexuality can be "cured."

But despite his treatment at Rekers’ hands, Murphy came out as gay in his 20s. His family described to CNN how Murphy seemed to struggle emotionally in the years after his treatment. At age 38, despite a successful career, Murphy hanged himself.

Rekers -- who also co-founded the anti-gay Family Research Council -- was disgraced in the media when news broke last year that he had hired a 20-year-old male prostitute as a traveling companion for a European vacation. Rekers denied that he and the escort had sexual contact, but the young man told the media that he administered erotic massages to Rekers on a daily basis during the trip.

Such cautionary tales seem not to deter so-called "ex gay" groups and religious organizations that offer "conversion therapy." Hong’s New Creation Association claims to have "treated" more than 200 individuals for homosexuality. Of those, the group says, 19 men went on to marry women.

GLBT equality advocates criticized the fact that Hong’s training was administered to government social workers.

"The government seems to think that homosexuals are possessed by evil spirits and needed to be ’cleansed’ or ’cured’ through conversion therapy," Rainbow Action’s Joseph Cho said. Some religiously grounded treatments have been known to include attempts at exorcisms.

But the Hong Kong government said that allowing Hong to train the workers was simply an attempt to provide another perspective to social workers, who have also heard from proponents of GLBT equality.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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