On Monday, August 1, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a segment during Morning Edition entitled “Can Therapy Help Change Sexual Orientation?” The report claimed that the debate about so-called “conversion therapy” continues in psychological circles. The fact is that all the major psychological and medical associations in the United States have stated that such treatment is ineffective and harmful. The story highlighted only two individuals, Rich Wyler and Peterson Toscano. Both men endured so-called “ex-gay” programs, but have very different views on the validity of such programs. With only two individual stories, NPR gave the false impression that the general population is split on so-called “conversation therapy”.
Peterson Toscano has written, spoken, and performed extensively about the harms he experienced as a result of his treatment. He is also a co-founder of Beyond Ex-Gay, a support group for survivors of so-called “ex-gay” programs. The report did not include any of his recent work and focused only on his experience in the program.
Rich Wyler, on the other hand, is a promoter of these programs. Not included in the NPR report is the fact that Mr. Wyler runs his own so-called “ex-gay” ministry, called People Can Change, which includes a wilderness retreat, “Journey Into Manhood.” Since the NPR piece aired, many have written about the practices employed by People Can Change and other so-called “ex-gay” programs.
GLAAD reached out to NPR to reach Alix Spiegel, the reporter, as well as Tracy Wahl, the supervising producer for Morning Edition. GLAAD shared the concern that any conversation about “ongoing debate” in psychological circles is perpetuating a myth about so-called “ex-gay” programs. GLAAD also shared its “Eye on the Media” concerning so-called “ex-gay” programs, which was created in response to increased coverage of the topic in recent weeks.
GLAAD has asked NPR to do a follow-up piece that reports on the positions of the major medical and psychological associations concerning attempts to change one’s sexual orientation, showing their blanket condemnation. GLAAD was then contacted by a publicist at NPR, who stated that NPR’s ombudsman would be writing about the piece on the ombudsman blog.
Late on Thursday, the ombudsman’s post, as well as a statement from NPR, came out. Both pieces strike a similar tone, expressing that NPR could have done a better job on the story. NPR ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, shared statements from Alix Spiegel, as well as her editor, Anne Gudenkauf. The two said, “We believed that our listeners are well informed about (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues,” and thus, there was no need to highlight the lack of balance in the “debate” within psychological circles.
Similarly, in her own statement, Margaret Low Smith, acting Senior Vice President of News, shared, “We could have done a better job on this story. Though we stated at the end of the piece that conversion therapy harms gay people and people who find it beneficial are very rare, we should have addressed those questions earlier and in greater detail so that listeners could hear the stories of Rich Wyler and Peterson Toscano with that context in mind.”
However, both the ombudsman’s post and the statement from the Senior Vice President miss the underlying concerns with the story. There is no “balance” and no “debate.” The American Psychiatric Association; The American Psychological Association; The American Medical Association; The American Counseling Association; The American Academy of Pediatrics; The National Association of Social Workers -- These are IMPARTIAL expert groups that shape the way the country learns and thinks about our well-being, have all stood up against this type of “counseling.” The nation’s most knowledgeable medical and mental health authorities have uniformly dismissed the idea that being gay is something that needs to be “treated,” and recognize that trying to do so can cause serious harm.
Additionally (and this is why the Director of Religion, Faith and Values is writing this post), the ombudsman’s post makes explicit was what hidden in the original piece. People endure such programs because they have been taught a theology that God cannot love them as they are. The ombudsman’s post states, “A particular clash that has been attracting attention in recent years is between our religious and sexual selves, especially among Christians who believe in a literal reading of the Bible, which they say condemns homosexuality.” This suggests that Christians, especially scriptural literalists, cannot accept being both Christian and gay. It is a false dichotomy that more and more people are rejecting. Thousands upon thousands of Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, and even Pentecostals and fundamentalists have found reconciliation between their sexual orientation and their faith.
It is also troubling that a story that is really about trying to align one’s behavior with religious beliefs reported as a science and health story. Alix Spiegel is a health reporter and Ann Gudenkauf is the supervising editor at the science desk. The story was reported as a “health” story. There was no religion reporting per se, except that the entire premise of the story is based on the theology of God’s exclusion. The ombudsman post acknowledges the religious premise, but doesn’t address it. By presenting such programs as “therapy”, NPR does disservice to both the notion of what qualifies as “health” and to a thorough understanding of the theology that both drives and opposes such programs.
GLAAD finds the statements from both the Ombudsman, as well as the Senior Vice President of News to be inadequate in addressing the errors and faulty framing within the original story. GLAAD calls on NPR to correct this misleading story and share factual information concerning the ineffectiveness and harm caused by so-called “ex-gay” programs. We will continue reaching out to the reporters, editors and producers involved. It is our hope that NPR will heed the public outcry about such a misleading story and issue a corrective statement or story.