"Most mental-health organizations have passed resolutions discouraging the use of so-called reparative therapies intended to change homosexuals into heterosexuals, saying no scientific evidence exists to show they are effective."— New York Times, May 9, 2001
To people who say that psychotherapy cannot change a person's sexual orientation, Dr. Rafe Da Vinci of Miami Beach says, "Numbers aren't straight or queer, they're clear. And the numbers show that therapy can change orientation, especially among men."
Da Vinci, a veteran psychiatrist with a booming practice in a Collins Avenue high-rise, is attracting growing attention in the debate about so-called "reparative therapies" that seek to change a person's sexual orientation. Doctors, gay rights activists, and others who say that sexual orientation is determined early in life have questioned claims that people with homosexual tendencies can overcome them via psychotherapy. Da Vinci's practice focuses on an oft-neglected group at the heart of this debate: straight men who wish to become gay.
"Survey data from submarines, discos, and prisons show that anywhere from 9 to 23 percent of males say they have a desire to become gay," Da Vinci said in a recent interview. "I think we have shown that these same men, if they commit themselves to an intensive course of therapy, can become happy homosexuals."
Heterosexual rights activists have questioned Da Vinci's data and criticized his politics, saying that his practice stigmatizes perfectly normal straight people and exploits their feelings of shame and guilt. Critics also allege that Da Vinci supported a resolution at the 1978 American Congress of Psychotherapists defining heterosexuality as a "uniquely vexing condition." The motion was narrowly defeated. Da Vinci denies any intention of fomenting intolerance of the straight lifestyle, saying that he was married to his third wife at the time.
Bearded, avuncular, and outspoken, Da Vinci has attracted hundreds of clients from all over south Florida with a controversial counseling regimen that includes group discussions about how best to cope with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. There are also frequent trips to Dean & DeLuca and a reading list that includes Remembrance of Things Past, Dennis Rodman's memoirs, and TheSeven Habits of Highly Homosexual People.
"In Freudian terms, we seek to reverse the Oedipal cycle, transferring the object identification with the unrealizable female Other into a more cognitive attachment to a responsible male, preferably one with a BMW," Da Vinci explained.
Originally a skeptic about reparative therapies, Da Vinci now says he is a believer.
"The non-straight heterosexual can reconcile his value system and his orientation," he says. "I've seen it happen in my office."
Da Vinci's latest book, Going Gay (Gomorrah Press), is now ranked 14,342 on the Amazon.com best-seller list and is climbing rapidly. His claims of success, while hotly disputed by heterosexual rights activists, are beginning to receive respectful coverage in professional journals. Last year Da Vinci published a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Gendered Genetics that is stirring debate on the Internet and on talk radio shows in some parts of Western Australia.
Out of 111 men who had undergone his "Gay for Good" course of therapy for at least a year, Da Vinci reported that 29 said that they no longer had sexual fantasies involving Rachel from Friends. An additional 21 men reported that while they still hoped to date Anna Kournikova someday, they were "somewhat happier" with their homosexual lifestyle. Da Vinci acknowledges that a slight majority of the men, 55 in total, reverted back to a straight lifestyle. Six of the reversion group, he noted, had committed suicide.
"Clearly, this therapy isn't for everybody," Da Vinci said.
The most common motivating factors cited by men who want to become gay, according to Da Vinci's survey, were "morality" (58 percent), "better clothes" (39 percent), and "more quality time at the gym" (28 percent).
"A lot of these guys say they deeply believe that it's just not right to get into a reproductive relationship in an era of dwindling natural resources," Da Vinci said. "Others want to uphold the moral values exemplified by Western thinkers from Socrates to Allan Bloom."
Da Vinci expressed surprise that among the motivations of those seeking to stay gay for good, "more sexual partners" only barely edged out "less watching of football" (22 percent to 21 percent). He said older patients in his study group most often cited "live like Cary Grant" (11 percent) and "a lot more sexual partners" (9 percent) as reasons for leaving the straight lifestyle. Younger clients spoke of "increased opportunities for meeting Ricky Martin in person" (5 percent).
Garth LeBouche, executive director of the Straight Support Network, a heterosexual activist group based in Arlington, Texas, decried Da Vinci's claims as "agenda-driven."
He criticized Da Vinci's reports about heterosexual suicide. According to published interviews, two of the men cited in Da Vinci's study had not committed suicide but had perished from heat exhaustion at a PTA meeting. A third fatality, LeBouche said, had strangled on a Happy Meal toy while playing with his 4-year-old son.
"Do those sound like men who died unhappy about their heterosexuality?" LeBouche said in a telephone interview. "Only an intolerant extremist would say such a thing."
LeBouche praised the recent decision of the Bush administration to reverse an executive order issued by President Clinton on his last day in office that would have included "Gay for Good" on a list of reparative therapies paid for by the U.S. Navy's health plan.
"This crazy notion that we can talk people into loving someone else should not be financed by the U.S. taxpayer," LeBouche said.
Da Vinci, a registered Republican who voted for McCain, says he regrets the administration's decision but will not contest it.
"Ending coverage will most likely hurt unit morale. On those submarines where the presence of straight people may be perceived by homosexuals as incompatible with tradition, the Gay for Good program helped some sailors fit in. Now, unhappy heterosexuals, who I suspect voted overwhelmingly for Bush, will have nowhere to turn. It's sad."
The tanned and buff doctor scoffs at published reports in the gay press that he is a closet heterosexual. He says that he and his longtime spiritual companion of three weeks, physical trainer Ferdinand Mateo of Brazil, are now seeking to develop conversion therapy for women.
"Our research," Da Vinci says, "suggests that up to 72 percent of all adult females say that heterosexual men are either emotionally unavailable, financially untrustworthy, sexually selfish, hygienically challenged, prone to illusions of grandeur, or all of the above. If we can help millions of women to become lesbians, we think that would probably be a net plus for human happiness."