The Family Research Council Stoops Low, Uses Robin Williams’ Death to Defend Ex-Gay Therapy

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Aug. 19 2014 4:00 PM

The FRC Abuses Robin Williams’ Death to Support Ex-Gay Therapy

Robin Williams
Come on FRC, let the man rest in peace.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

When a figure as beloved and respected as Robin Williams passes away, it’s only natural that writers scramble and stretch to find distinctive means of marking the event. Praising certain performances, recounting personal encounters, or even using the opportunity to raise awareness about issues (like depression) that challenged the deceased are all good tacks. What’s clearly inappropriate, though, is using a man’s death as a launchpad for flights of bizarre associative logic concerning your own pet cause—which is exactly what Family Research Council Senior Fellow Peter Sprigg did yesterday when he used Williams’ attendance of substance-abuse-related rehab to defend, somehow, ex-gay therapy.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

Advertisement

Sprigg’s argument, as far as I can parse it, is basically this: Rehab and therapy are options for individuals who suffer from alcoholism and other forms of dangerous addiction, and society generally smiles on the use of these services to help addicts get sober. Therefore, we should similarly support “sexual reorientation therapy,” since individuals exist who are uncomfortable with their same-sex attraction and who might wish to “change” it. Here’s a snapshot:

Whatever the motivation, there are those who have simply made a choice to walk away from the homosexual lifestyle, without clinical help—much like how Robin Williams simply stopped using drugs and alcohol in the 1980’s. Others have sought professional help, perhaps at the urging of family members, in the form of “sexual reorientation therapy”—much like when Williams entered a formal alcohol rehab program in 2006.

The problem with “much like” here is that Williams’ struggle with substances and his underlying depression are not at all like experiencing discomfort with one’s homosexuality.

Sprigg lists some of the reasons a person might want to “change” her sexual orientation, and they are telling in their dependence on a prejudiced conservative worldview for force: Religious intolerance; “traditional” family pressures; “well-documented health problems associated with homosexual conduct” like HIV/AIDS; and disillusionment with gay romantic experiences are all mentioned. The first two of these are the result of external bigotry, the cynical AIDS nod arises from a refusal to accept that safer sex practices are as important for gays as they are for straights, and the final reason is a personal issue that has nothing to do with homosexuality writ large. That some individuals blame being gay in general for these issues is a triumph of misinformation and ideological browbeating, not proof that homosexuality should be treated as having the same inherent potential for harmful outcomes as alcohol or cocaine.

The reason addicts seek or are referred to rehab for substance abuse is because addiction is clearly inhibiting their ability to live their lives. Meanwhile, the only thing inhibiting gay people from living openly and happily is people like Sprigg, people who suggest that homosexuality is anything other than a natural, perfectly healthy variation of human sexual expression. When critics of ex-gay therapy—including the large majority of the medical establishment—advocate for its elimination, it is not because we, as Sprigg puts it, are “holding such therapies to a standard of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘safety’ that is impossible for any mental health treatment to meet.” Rather, it is because we recognize that being gay is not a mental health issue in the first place.

A person stubborn enough to treat it as such—41 years after the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as in any way disordered—may need some therapy of his own, especially when we find him digging his heels into the fresh soil of a good man’s grave.