In the late 1960s, homosexuality was believed to be a mental illness. And the psychiatric treatment that one teenager underwent back then was so violent and damaging that it almost killed him. Today, there is a global scientific consensus that homosexuality is not a pathological condition but a natural variation of human sexuality. Nonetheless, several organizations continue to promote cruel and ineffective procedures to “cure” it.
American actor Glenn Shadix starred in more than 30 films during his lifetime, most notably in Tim Burton’s 1988 comedy-horror Beetlejuice. He played Otho – a tubby, ostentatious interior designer hired to decorate a haunted house. He also starred in Heathers, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the remake of Planet of the Apes.
Shadix made a success of his life, but things nearly turned out very differently for him. In 2009, he talked to Truth Wins Out – a non-profit organization working to dispel anti-gay prejudice and homophobia, especially anti-gay religious extremism. What he told them about his teenage experience with “ex-gay therapy” was disturbing and profound.
Born in 1952 in Bessemer – a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama – Shadix grew up in a deeply conservative environment. Drawn to the liberal arts, he spent two years at Birmingham-Southern College. There, he studied under Dr. Arnold Powell – an absurdist playwright and theater director, and a professor of English, Drama and Speech.
Alabama in the late 1960s was not a tolerant place – in fact, the legalization of same-sex sexual activity in the state was still more than three decades away. Nonetheless, Shadix decided to come out. “I was 17 and I decided it was time,” he told Truth Wins Out. “I had 17 years of a lie… it didn’t go over well, as it rarely did in those days, in that time.”
Indeed, it was around that time that a number of regressive organizations on the Christian Right began coalescing into the so-called “ex-gay movement.” Composed of non-profits and ministries such as Love in Action and Exodus Global Alliance, the movement broadly promotes “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE) as a method for eliminating same-sex desires.
In fact, Shadix was a guinea pig for incipient SOCE techniques. Under pressure from his father, he submitted to aversion therapy with a psychiatrist at the University of Alabama. “My father, he said we can beat this thing,” Shadix told Truth Wins Out. “… it was essentially… either you become heterosexual or you are going to be ostracized [from the family].”
Aversion therapy is derived from the basic principles of behavioral psychology – namely that pleasure and pain condition behavior. The therapy works by pairing a stimulus with pain or discomfort. Over time, the subject begins to associate the stimulus with pain or discomfort and starts to avoid it. Consequently, their behavior becomes reconditioned.
Aversion therapy is just one of the many techniques used in SOCEs. Others draw on medicine, cognitive and psychoanalytic perspectives, or on religious and spiritual teachings. In some countries, “corrective rape” and other acts of sexual violence have been used in SOCEs. Meanwhile, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that any such methods are effective in changing sexual orientation.
“I’d be sitting in the doctor’s office and there would be like a battery as I remember,” said Shadix, recalling the treatment. “Reminded me of a car battery and they hooked up electrodes to my right arm.” The psychiatrists then presented Shadix with pictures of gay pornography. He was instructed to look at them and signal when he was aroused by nodding his head. Then they shocked him.
“They said, ‘Now we’re going to increase the voltage and contract the muscles,’” continued Shadix. “I’ll never forget the phrase – ‘don’t be a sissy about the pain. The more pain that you can take, the more this is going to work.’ So I did as I was told… I took as much of the shock as I could stand…”
Shadix was then instructed to turn his head at the moment the pain overwhelmed the pleasure. At that point, the psychiatrists would cease shocking him and remove the gay pornography from his view. And in an apparent attempt to condition heterosexual responses, they replaced it with a picture of a woman.
The “therapy” failed, and Shadix tried to commit suicide. “I just had this overwhelming sense of shame,” he told Truth Wins Out. “I went into my parent’s bedroom and I got all of their Elavil… [it was] amphetamine and I took a fairly massive overdose and by the time I got to the hospital I was out and was in a coma for three days.”
But after Shadix woke up, his father visited. “My father came and he took me out on my first outing, and he had a bottle of vodka in the car,” said Shadix. “We both had some vodka and he told me that he wanted me to live… That he wanted me to be whoever I wanted to be and that he loved me.”
“From that point things began to change… I don’t believe my father ever understood but I really didn’t expect my family to understand because I didn’t understand. I just knew who I was and I was thankful that I was receiving acceptance,” said Shadix. Ultimately, he left Alabama for New York and Los Angeles and pursued a successful career in the movie industry.
“There’s still a lot of people… that believe they can change their homosexual son or daughter,” said Shadix of SOCEs. “What essentially happens is that it reinforces shame and guilt.” Indeed, the American Psychoanalytic Association has stated that SOCE methods based on depth psychology have a tendency to reinforce internalized homophobia, thus causing psychological pain.
More generally, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists has said that due to the damage that SOCEs “can cause to individuals, the contribution they make to the misrepresentation of homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the prejudice and discrimination that can flourish through the use of such therapies… all major medical organizations… oppose the use of sexual orientation change efforts.”
Indeed, some psychologists believe they are ethically obliged to take a hardline against SOCE therapies, which they regard as oppressive, discriminatory and ineffective. They claim that social pressure and internalized homophobia often drive a client to pursue SOCE therapy, and that rates of depression, suicidal feelings, anxiety and substance abuse are twice as high for those who go through with it.
In 2007, Shadix returned to his hometown of Bessemer after living in Los Angeles for 30 years. Sadly, he died in his home three years later, apparently after falling from his wheelchair and hitting his head. In addition to his acting legacy, he left one final important message.
“You can stop being ‘actively’ homosexual,” he told Truth Wins Out. “But you’ll always be homosexual if you are a homosexual. And that’s my belief…. I’m highly motivated to speak out specifically against ‘aversion therapy,’ and the notion that you can change a person’s sexual identity — that it’s some sense of choice. Well, it was not a choice in my case, and I know of no choice…. Gay people of my generation owe it to generations to come to tell the truth….”