Beliefs Culture Ethics Faith Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Ex-gay pioneer Joseph Nicolosi is dead. That’s good news for LGBT people he hurt (COMMENTARY)

Two men kiss in front of a group of evangelicals protesting the 2011 London Pride.

(RNS) When I learned that “ex-gay therapy” pioneer Joseph Nicolosi had died, my first response was, “Thank God.” And not like, “Thank God, he’s in a better place.” More like, “Thank God he isn’t around to destroy any more gay and lesbian lives.”

I don’t contend that this was the best response. Or the holiest. And I’m not even proud to share it with you. But that’s what I felt, plain and simple.

If you’re not familiar with “ex-gay therapy,” it is a therapeutic approach built on the assumption that sexual orientation can be changed. That is, that gay people can be made straight with enough of the right kind of counseling. It treats homosexuality as a curable mental health disorder, and also goes by the names “reparative therapy” or “conversion therapy.”

Reports of what is involved in this kind of “therapy” vary widely. In the past, some used electroshocks or nausea-inducing drugs to associate same-sex erotic urges with pain. Some include “naked therapy” where patients are stripped of their clothes. And some patients, including one I spoke to recently, have been encouraged to watch straight pornography.

Due to the scandalous nature of these practices, most “ex-gay” therapists claim they mainly utilize talk therapy. At it turns out, this is only a marginally positive development.

As numerous studies have shown, “ex-gay therapy” simply doesn’t work.

It’s so terribly ineffective that the largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, shuttered after admitting that 99.9 percent of participants did not experience a shift in orientation. And other ministries who were active in promoting ex-gay therapy, like Focus on the Family, have shifted their attention to other matters. The main research used as support for “ex-gay therapy” was conducted by Robert L. Spitzer, who later apologized and admitted his data was tainted, unreliable and misinterpreted. As a result, fewer than one-quarter of Americans believe it works.

Joseph Nicolosi in a promotional video.

The real problem with Nicolosi’s “therapy” is not its ineffectiveness but its harmfulness.

Among patients, it has been shown to create heightened levels of anxiety, distress, depression, and suicidal tendencies. Every major medical association has repudiated the practice, and some states have outlawed it for minors. The horror stories told by former patients are numerous and are so sad that they are difficult to read at length. (For a milder account, there’s the story of how Nicolosi drove one teen to “the brink of suicide.”)

Even most conservative Christians have now abandoned their support for “reparative therapy,” but somehow Nicolosi did not follow. He continued to promote his work as one of the few final practitioners.

Still, I cannot rejoice over Nicolosi’s death. Instead, I wish he had lived long enough to shut down his clinic, repudiate his work, and apologize to the countless people he harmed.

I’m sorry for all the family members and friends who doubtlessly miss their departed loved one. I know they must be grieving, and I pray God meets them in their mourning.

But I’m not sorry Joseph Nicolosi will no longer profit from peddling debunked pseudoscience.

I’m not sorry he won’t be able to spread a false hope that people can cleanse same-sex attractions through a special kind of counseling.

And I’m not sorry that he will no longer be able to sow hopelessness and despair among LGBT youth, contributing to their disproportionate depression and suicide rates.

Christians believe that upon death, we end up in an eternal place surrounded by our faithful ancestors and immersed in God’s presence. Christians refer to this place as heaven. I imagine that when Nicolosi died on Wednesday (March 8) and entered eternity, he was shocked to find LGBT people there, too. Many of them, I imagine, entered that eternal realm prematurely because of his messages. He’ll have plenty of time to apologize to them now.

I do not believe Nicolosi was an evil man, but it seems undeniable that he perpetuated one of the greatest evils to come from the Christian community in the last half century. On Facebook, his wife said, “Dr. Nicolosi had always hoped for his legacy as the creator of Reparative Therapy to go on.”

Well, I hope it does not. I hope it too will also pass from this earth.

May it be so.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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