"You can change! I saw it on TV!'"
When I was in my early 20s, that's what someone very close to me told me when she found out I was gay.
A daytime TV junkie, she had happened to catch a glimpse of a certain (other) TV doc's popular discussion show, during a segment that featured self-professed "ex-gays" telling how they had made the choice to step away from "the lifestyle" and how everyone else could do the same. Being someone who already bent towards the less-than-accepting side, she was eager to embrace what she was hearing. "Gays can change," she told herself. Someone on TV told her so.
That's the harm of programs like the one that "The Dr. Oz Show" will air today.
Yes, representatives from GLAAD, GLSEN, and others will be there to ably knock down the myths and push back against the spin. And yes, with California passing laws that ban so-called reparative therapy for youth, noted civil rights groups suing certain arms of this movement for fraud, and members of Congress proposing resolutions that speak out against the harms that come from this unsupported junk science, there is a wealth of solid information out there for those who choose to do their own research about this movement and its motivations.
But none of that will matter to many members of the audience.
Years later, I saw a copy of the very program that my loved one had seen, the one that convinced her that "reparative therapy" works.
Turns out that the "ex-gay" side was, in fact, challenged by pro-LGBT voices, just like they will be today. It was also clear that the participants were largely motivated by their religious beliefs more than their biological feelings. And, anyone who took time to do his or her own research would know that many of the facts and figures that the "ex-gay" movement representatives quoted were skewed, or just flat-out bunk.
But in terms of how that show personally impacted me, the larger set of truths did not matter. This person in my life was already seeking some sort of validation for her opposition to my sexual orientation, and so she heard what she wanted to hear.
It didn't matter that the only people on earth who claim that these methods work are emotionally (and often financially) dependent on convincing others that thay work. She didn't want to consider the fact that anyone can stop doing anything and claim that he or she has "changed," but the chosen celibacy and/or shift doesn't really constitute a "cure," nor is it healthy behavior. She certainly didn't seem eager to note that even most of the "ex-gays" (who identity as such for obvious political reasons, obviously) admit to still feeling same-sex attractions.
She just wanted to be "right" in her beliefs.
Since I was already a young adult and not dependent on this person for wealth, health, or general welfare, the impact on my day-to-day was minimal. But what about any other gay people in her life? How would they be affected? Or what if this had aired during my younger years? What if I were a teenager, and my father was the one convinced that his gay son could "change"? What if I had seen this show when I was wee little, before I knew anything about sexual orientation, and this misinformation led a lifetime of fear and self-loathing? How would it have affected my family members who couldn't understand why I couldn't just be like one of the TV panelists?
It doesn't matter how many experts you stack against the so-called "ex-gays." Unless the quacks are readily identified as such, those who are seeking support for their own ingrained opinions are likely to just hear and embrace that which lends credence to their own made-up minds and write off everything else as being the product of a "liberal media" that embraces the "homosexual agenda." The anti-LGBT movement, which supports the "ex-gay" movement in full, has spent years telling Americans that there is such an agenda at play, not only in the media but also in science, politics, the judiciary, and anywhere else that's convenient to their cause. You will hear those claims again today if you tune in. Those who already trend in that more conservative direction might believe them, and choose to ignore the advice of the entire mainstream healthcare community, especially if both sides are presented as though the matter is still up for debate among experts.
We hope with our greatest hopes that more people who tune in to today's episode of "The Dr. Oz Show" will listen to what the folks with facts on their side have to say and will come away with a better understanding of what is really going on on the other side, why it's dangerous, and why we speak out against it. Those of us on the right side of this issue are clearly a sizable majority which includes the entire mainstream healthcare community, and this program might actually help connect dots about how harsh the ideology really is on the other side. Few minority populations have had to suffer the indignity of being told they can and should "change." In that respect, it is good that viewing audiences see that it is very much happening to their LGBT friends and neighbors.
But I still can't help but feel concern and even dread for that one little kid whose mama might tune in to today's show, think the issue is actually still being debated among experts, and believe that "change" is possible for her child. As long as national television programs choose to take fallacies with no credible backing and turn them into two-sided debates with allegedly merited viewpoints in both camps, the fallout is going to be there.
Somewhere in America today, someone's loved one is going to hear what he or she wants to hear.