If you’re attracted to members of your own sex, you can get therapy to change that. It’s an idea mainstream medical organizations have described as dangerous—-and, it turns out, it’s also a message that’s been taught to some middle schoolers in Prince George’s County since last year.
Starting last fall, some seventh grade health classes in the Prince George’s County Public Schools system were shown an anti-bullying video that promoted gay-to-straight therapy as an option for LGBTQ youth. When City Desk started asking question about the video this week, the school system pulled it from classrooms. Despite the best efforts of a prominent therapist in the homophobic ex-gay movement who is also a member of the school system’s Health Council, students learning about bullying will no longer learn about the widely discredited form of counseling.
The 21-minute anti-bullying video, called “Acception,” at first appears to promote the acceptance of gay children. In the video, four students are assigned a project on homophobic bullying, with the group splitting up to study the issues of bullying and the origins of homosexuality. Two of the students encounter a cavemen parable about the origins of bullying, but the teens researching same-sex attraction soon find themselves in a different kind of scientifically dicey territory. While the video initially explores gay teenagers being bullied and a young man coming out to his parents, it soon features a student talking about how his once-lesbian cousin used therapy to become attracted to men. Then, the students in the video “watch” an interview with a gay-to-straight therapist.
“If someone wants to live a gay life, I respect that, and if someone wants to change from gay to straight and choose a different path, I respect that too,” says the character, played by an actress. The success of “reparative therapy” is touted elsewhere in the video: In a portion of the video you can watch on YouTube, a woman who once felt attracted to other women says that growing closer to her mother and female friends—-a trope of sexual orientation-switching theory—-helped her become attracted to men. Discussion questions provided to teachers using “Acception” feature scenarios in which sexual orientation is changed through therapy.
The efficacy of that kind of counseling is a fantasy, according to experts and contemporary research. In 2008, the Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and several other medical groups endorsed the position that homosexuality isn’t a disorder, and thus, can’t be “fixed” with therapy.
The man behind the “Acception” video is D.C.-area filmmaker Christopher J. Doyle. “We break through the barriers of what I believe is being politicized in the education system,” says Doyle, a prominent figure in the controversial ex-gay movement. Doyle, who says he felt same-sex attraction until he was in his 20s, claims that the opposition to presenting reparative therapy as an option to gay high school students is based on a false, binary concept of sexuality.
Betsy Gallun worked as the supervisor for health education in Prince George’s County Public Schools until she retired last year, and she thinks information about gay-to-straight therapy should be available to Prince George’s County students. “I feel very badly that it’s coming under scrutiny, to be honest with you,” says Gallun.
Gallun was introduced to “Acception” by Richard A. Cohen, who is a member of the PGCPS Health Council, according to a membership list provided by the school district. He is also a prominent ex-gay therapist as well as Doyle’s boss at the Bowie, MD.-based International Healing Foundation, which offers sexual orientation therapy. In order to be shown in classrooms as part of the health curriculum, “Acception” needed and received approval from the Health Council, a group of experts and community members.
Cohen, who was written a number of books including Coming Out Straight and Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan for Family Healing, was permanently expelled from the American Counseling Association. Cohen didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Six health classes have shown “Acception” since last fall, according to PGCPS spokesman Briant K. Coleman—-and more were expected to use it this year, says Doyle. State education regulators also approved the video, according to Coleman. But on Wednesday, PGCPS pulled the video pending further review, only to terminate the program permanently later that day.
But Prince George’s County Public Schools still seems confused about why the curriculum was controversial in the first place. “We pulled the video because there was too much focus on alternative lifestyles,” Coleman writes in email.