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Richard A. Cohen had a newsletter, and he had a plan.
Cohen had seen his controversial therapy program, through which he purports to help gay people live heterosexual lives, denounced by his peers. In 2002, he was expelled from the American Counseling Association. Still, there was at least one place the Bowie, Md.-based therapist thought his International Health Foundation’s program could find a home: schools.
“To fill in the blanks left by the public schools systems’ strictly gay-affirming curricula, the International Healing Foundation is set to produce a short DVD,” he wrote in the fall 2007 issue of his organization’s newsletter, You’re Not Alone. “This film is designed to be part of the schools’ health education courses, and clearly shows that people can change and come out of homosexuality.”
Cohen is a prominent figure in the so-called “ex-gay” movement, a group whose members claim to have been “cured” of homosexuality. According to Cohen, who has written books like Coming Out Straight: Understanding and Healing Homosexuality, wanting to sleep with a member of one’s own sex might not be a reflection of sexual orientation. Instead, he describes it as “same-sex attraction,” which can be caused by, among other things, closeness to an opposite-sex parent, estrangement from friends of the same sex, or low self-worth. With his gay-to-straight therapy, Cohen claims to be able to cure these same-sex attractions, using techniques like cradling male patients to re-create a father’s touch.
According to his newsletter, Cohen planned to mail his DVD, featuring testimony from recipients of gay-to-straight therapy, to every school district in the country—and to every donor who kicked in $200. That might sound steep for a DVD, but as Cohen pointed out, at least he was offering parents a choice. “You did not get a vote when your school board introduced a gay-affirming curriculum to the students of your community,” he wrote.
It’s not clear what immediately became of that project—Cohen didn’t respond to several requests for comment. But five years later, Cohen apparently succeeded in his cinematic ambitions. Last fall, a DVD pushing Cohen’s scientifically unfounded theories made its way into health classrooms in Prince George’s County Public Schools, with help from school officials and Cohen’s own position on an internal school council.
“Acception,” the 21-minute video produced by Cohen’s International Health Foundation, purports to reduce bullying of LGBT students. Its name comes from a word, invented in the video, for tolerating differences.
But “Acception” also presents gay-to-straight therapy as an effective, safe treatment, despite skepticism from the scientific community. In one portion, a character named Maria talks about how growing closer to her mother and female friends caused her to lose interest in women. “And guess what,” Maria continues, holding a picture of her and a man. “I’m married!”
In the next scene, a character who has experienced sexual feelings for women is shown watching Maria’s video. “I’m shocked—I didn’t know that people could change,” she says in voiceover narration. “Why haven’t I heard of this?”
Probably because gay-to-straight therapy is at best scientifically dubious and at worst dangerous. In a statement endorsed by several medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, the therapy is described as having “serious potential to harm young people.” While Cohen insists his therapy is merely an option and that he isn’t a threat to gay communities, LGBT advocates have criticized gay-to-straight therapy and the wider ex-gay movement as thinly veiled homophobia.
“Acception” creator Christopher Doyle, the director of the International Healing Foundation (where Cohen is now executive director emeritus) and another prominent “ex-gay,” thinks warnings about the therapy can be attributed to political differences. “We’re breaking through that barrier of politicization and giving all that information in a comprehensive way,” Doyle says. He was inspired to make “Acception,” he says, when some of his therapy clients described being bullied for being gay. Doyle, who claims to have experienced same-sex attraction from his childhood adolescence until it disappeared in his 20s, says he included portions of the video that tout gay-to-straight therapy to make sure students know about all their options.
Doyle insists that his kind of counseling isn’t dangerous to adolescents. “I think that any statements based on perceived harm or perceived benefit are very anecdotal, and it’s not based on any hard studies or hard science,” Doyle says. Perhaps, but the anecdotes are jarring: A 2009 American Psychological Association review of research on therapies to change sexual orientation found that they were ineffective and increased depression and thoughts of suicide in some recipients.
Did Doyle’s film help the International Health Foundation’s bottom line? A fiscal year 2011 tax form, filed a few months after “Acception” debuted in schools around the country last March, lists $540,000 in revenue from an unspecified “special school project,” though there’s no way to know whether that’s “Acception.” Prince George’s County Public Schools spent $2,333 on “Acception,” according to schools spokesman Briant K. Coleman.
Cohen himself recommended “Acception,” according to Betsy Gallun, a now-retired Prince George’s administrator who worked in the system while the film’s adoption was being considered for the seventh-grade health curriculum. Gallun, who supported showing “Acception” in classrooms, insists the students she saw watch the video didn’t seem affected by the gay-to-straight therapy portion during class. “It wasn’t something that clicked with any of these kids, as far as something that they even had concerns about,” she said.
Before it could enter the seventh-grade health curriculum, “Acception” had to be approved by the Prince George’s County School Health Council, a group that includes members from the school system, the county health department, and parent-teacher associations. Cohen has a volunteer position on the health council.
After “Acception” received approval from the health council, it began a pilot period in some county schools last fall, according to Doyle. Prince George’s County Public Schools pulled the video from its seventh-grade health curriculum last week after inquiries from Washington City Paper. The film was taught in six classrooms, according to Coleman, who didn’t know how many students watched it. Still, he seemed confused about why “Acception” had become a hot-button issue. In an email, Coleman wrote that “Acception” wasn’t removed because of the portions dealing with gay-to-straight therapy, but for having “too much focus on alternative lifestyles.”
While the removal of “Acception” from Prince George’s County middle schools is a setback for the International Healing Foundation, it won’t keep its bogus theories out of schools entirely. According to Doyle, since its release in March 2012 the film has been adopted by 11 other school districts around the country.