"Reparative Therapy" at BYU in 1972
by rock oakeson
In the August 2000 issue of The Pillar, an excellent article appeared about the dangers of so-called “ex-gay” Christian ministries and associated “reparative therapy.” It is fascinating to an “older” person like me that such things are ubiquitously spoken of these days, because back when I was a college student, nobody had heard of such a phenomenon. I think I ended up unwittingly being one of the ground-breakers, so to speak, in 1972. I actually had the audacity to ask for such a therapy while a student at Brigham Young University.
I was quite confused at that point in my life. I knew without any doubt that I was gay, but I had no friends or acquaintances who were out—no positive reference points at all. So the only thing I heard was how sinful it was from my church leaders, and how contemptuous it was from all the derisive guys in my dormitory. I had spent a lifetime up until then not fitting in very well with society in general and the LDS church in particular; so it was important to me to find out how to conform at all costs. Gaining acceptance from family and friends was an obsession by the time I got to BYU. So after years of torturing myself thinking of how to “fix” all this, I decided to tell my BYU Branch President.
In retrospect, I recall how embarrassed everybody involved was to proceed with my request. They complimented me on my desire to “leave the muck and mire,” and go through “proper repentance channels;” but I could tell they were in a major quandary. They were duty-bound and had to do something to follow through.
Eventually my Branch President said that he spoke with a psychologist over in the Smoot Building’s Counseling Center who would see me twice a week. He mentioned that this was a free service offered to full-time BYU students. I figured this could only help me, but was even happier that it was free. I asked if this would remain totally confidential, and he said that it would be just between himself, the psychologist and me. I found that acceptable. After all, these were the proper channels, weren’t they?
During the first visit to this psychologist, I had no idea how to proceed except to tell him everything that was going on with me at school and in the dorm. I was very honest. I let him in on the fact that, just in this semester alone, I had three gay professors (even an idiot could tell, I thought, but my own gaydar never lied); I had a crush on seven of the 40 guys on my floor in Deseret Towers; I had heard 27 derogatory comments about gays and lesbians the past week; and I couldn’t stand my homophobic roommate.
Plus, I told him how an older person unknown to me had called me wanting an “interview” earlier that week. This person claimed to be a member of my stake presidency, so not wanting to be disobedient, I went to his Harris Fine Arts Center office to talk with him. It turned out that he had been let in on our little secret which I thought only included my branch president and this counselor. This member of my stake presidency had asked me if I was repenting. I said yes. He asked me if I had ever had any sexual experience with anybody at BYU. I said no, and told him I was a still a virgin. He asked me if I knew anybody at BYU who was having homosexual feelings. I told him that I didn’t discuss sexual feelings with anybody, and that he would have to ask people for himself—it was none of my business. It looked like what turned into the infamous gay “witch hunt” at BYU had already begun.
My psychologist told me that he had told nobody, so it must have been my branch president. But I wasn’t too upset about it, because the proper channels were the proper channels. I really wanted to give reparative therapy my best shot so that in the future, should I remain as I always had been, nobody could honestly tell me I didn’t try.
After spending two semesters with this same psychologist and getting nowhere talking about everyone from my parents and family, to my friends and teachers, he eventually decided to get another staff psychologist to chat with me and see if anything else could be done. I must commend the first one for his open-mindedness and zeal to try to help me, because this second one seemed very annoyed with me and detached. Not even making much eye-contact with me, he decided after four sessions that hypnosis was the answer. I was actually very excited, that late Spring day, to go to his office to be hypnotized.
Thinking that this might be the answer, I gladly relaxed as I lay on his sofa and did everything he told me. Basically it amounted to staring at a small statue of Charlie Chaplin while he told me in a low voice that I had genitals, that I was able to use them normally, and that from now on I would. After this ten-minute session, I obviously felt no different, nor did I continue to think that these inspired men of the Mormon counseling world knew what they were doing. I very honestly explained to this second therapist that I would rather return to the first. He seemed relieved.
I went back to my first therapist, no longer having much faith in this process, but still willing to do whatever he prescribed. He thought that we had talked through things enough, and now felt like bio-feedback was the answer. So twice a week for the rest of the Summer, I went to his office, took a few clothes off, let him attach cold, gel-coated diodes to various parts of my body while he monitored the way I relaxed. He and I learned two things from this: that I could relax deeply when I wanted to, and that bio-feedback had absolutely nothing to do with changing a person’s sexual orientation.
At the end of his rope, he finally disclosed a “failure-proof action” that we could take that he said he had been saving. He asked if it would be acceptable to me to call in my entire branch presidency one day and, in his office, have them anoint me with oil and give me a blessing to cast out any homosexual demons that might be lurking somewhere inside my body and soul. I remember mockingly asking him if this was the definition of “the last straw.” He smiled apologetically and said, “I guess so.”
So we made an appointment for when my branch president, his two counselors, the psychologist and I could meet there, and we met. It was a late evening, and all of them stood around me in the circle as they poured olive oil on my head, laid their hands over my oily scalp, and with the maudlin and overly sanctimonious tones of my branch president’s voice, cast out “in the name of Jesus” any “unclean spirits” that were causing or aiding my “lack of feelings for women and abnormal desires for men.”
I remember the moment it was over; I stood on cue to shake all their hands. No change. Nothing. I felt no different at all. But as I walked back to the dormitory that evening, a strange kind of freedom came over me—a freedom in knowing that I was who I was, through no choice or fault of my own, and that I couldn’t change even if somebody else thought I should. Nor did I need to be forgiven. I wish I could say that I came out of the closet that night feeling free of all guilt and shame, but I can’t. I may have learned that I couldn’t change my feelings, but I still tried hiding them for another 15 years. After a two-year mission to Sapporo, Japan, then serving the church in many capacities, and finally even attempting a temple marriage, I learned more than ever before that I am who I am. I stopped worrying about whether or not people accepted me. I finally began to accept myself—the real purpose of life.
Living in Orange County, California, in 1987 at the age of 33, I had my marriage annulled, came out of the closet, left Mormonism and started getting involved in the gay community there. Even now, my many friends and loved ones, along with my partner of 3 ½ years, have given me nothing but support. Life is open and guilt-free now that I have learned what few people have from direct experience. I will never forget my year in “reparative” therapy. Even though it has become a hot topic these days, with the therapy itself no doubt more formalized than mine, I still can’t imagine that its essence has changed much—or become any more successful—than mine was back in 1972.