U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Transforming “Conversion Therapy” amid the Sexual Revolution

Note to readers: This essay by Chris Babits is our fourth  installment in the Summer of Love Roundtable. (You can read previous installments here,  here, and here.) Chris Babits is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on United States religion, gender, and sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His dissertation is tentatively entitled “To Cure a Sinful Nation: Conversion Therapy and the Making of Modern America, 1930 to the Present Day.”


Transforming “Conversion Therapy” amid the Sexual Revolution
by Chris Babits

On March 23, 1950, Dr. Rose Franzblau, a psychologist and advice columnist for New York City’s Daily Compass, published a letter from “Homosexual, but Doesn’t Want to Change.” In this letter, an eighteen year old man wrote that he had been a homosexual “since the age of fourteen” and that he was “completely adjusted to the situation and am sexually and mentally satisfied.” There was a problem, though. When his mother found out that her son was attracted to other men, she became “hysterical.” The letter’s author confided in Franzblau that he had been to doctors, but failed to experience a change in his sexuality because this was not something he himself desired. At the end of his letter, the young man pleaded for advice to “bring back some happiness to my family.”
Franzblau’s response was typical of the time. She wrote that most parents could accept the various “misfortunes” of their children. In Franzblau’s mind, though, homosexuality “is entirely different.” Homosexuals, according to the psychologist and advice columnist, suffered from narcissistic self-love, an unnatural condition challenging the self-preservation of the species. Franzblau recognized that the young man must wish to change. She promised help, writing that “deep psychoanalytic therapy combined with sustained co-operation from the individual can help him to progress from this level of behavior [supposedly immature and narcissistic homosexuality] to the next and highest phase of development [heterosexuality].” Franzblau insisted that the young man might still find a “cure.” Not doing so would only cause his mother to suffer.[1]

The psychoanalytic theories underpinning Franzblau’s response lived well past the “awakening” of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the sexual revolution had unexpected consequences for “conversion therapy,” a wide-range of practices aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.[2] In the late-1960s, as the mantra of “free love” captivated those adventurous enough for it, humanistic psychologists and others grasped the transformative effects of sexual experimentation. More specifically, these therapists would, in group counseling sessions, suggest that men and women with same-sex attractions get aroused and achieve orgasm with members of the opposite sex. Martin Duberman, the award-winning and pioneering historian of gay history, provided an excellent account of this therapeutic practice in Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. Other versions of “conversion therapy” have their roots in the sexual revolution as well. The birth of ex-gay ministries, including Love in Action (LIA), the first residential site for men who wanted to rid themselves of homosexuality, emerged from the ashes of the Summer of Love. Beginning in 1973, Frank Worthen, one of the founding members of LIA, found respite from his “gay lifestyle” as part of the ex-gay movement.

Duberman offered revealing insights into the pervasiveness of “conversion therapy,” even among those who were sexually awakened. As a young historian, Duberman attended traditional psychotherapy as well as group counseling, admitting his homosexual attractions in both settings. By the early 1970s, he was ready for a different experience. In Cures, Duberman recounted signing up for a daylong “marathon on sexuality” sponsored by Anthos, the east coast branch of Esalen, the famed humanistic retreat center located in Big Sur, California.

In a group counseling session, Duberman, then in his forties, expressed helplessness about his homosexuality. Revealingly, the members of the group session “tsk-tsked,” although not in response to Duberman’s somewhat demeaning comments about his homosexuality. Instead, they focused on his expression of hopelessness, “so antithetical to the Anthos spirit.” The group leader promised that Duberman would, by the end of the marathon, realize he was “foolish” to believe that he was not attracted to the opposite sex.

What was the leader’s recommendation? Having Duberman engage in sexual play with two women who had also signed up for the marathon of sexuality. According to Duberman, he tried to show his “guts,” hoping for one last chance to “change” his sexuality. “So off the three of us trooped to the next room,” he recounted, “where for an hour we touched, fondled, and cuddled, Estelle sucking away nobly at my limp cock, Joan obligingly letting her breasts get hard at my touch.” Duberman admitted that “[n]one of this was unpleasant.” Pleasure was not the issue, however. “Despite some initial nervousness, and whether through denial or disinterest,” he continued, “I felt calmly detached…” Duberman “congratulated” himself for giving the threesome a try, “not having been too uptight to go through the motions, and all three of us generated considerable affection for each other.” “But limp my cock remained,” he remembered. The group leader, in disbelief, thought that Duberman’s inability to get aroused had a simple answer: he simply was not attracted to Estelle and Joan. The solution would be to find women Duberman found sexually attractive.[3]

On the opposite coast, in San Francisco, the home of the Summer of Love, Frank Worthen lived a sexually adventurous life as a gay man. Worthen had known of his attraction to men from the time he was thirteen. In the late 1940s, he threw himself into the gay scene in San Francisco. “It was a real adventure for a young kid,” he reminisced in a Wall Street Journal interview. Still, something was missing. Although he owned several import stores and had achieved success buying and selling real estate, Worthen “felt spiritually isolated.” Then, one evening when leaving the office to visit one of San Francisco’s new bathhouses, Worthen “felt God’s presence welling up inside him.” This was the moment his life changed. From this point on, Worthen devoted himself to what would become the ex-gay movement.[4]

Worthen’s spiritual — and sexual — awakening led him to minister to other men struggling with same-sex attractions. As Tanya Erzen recounts in Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, Worthen’s outreach began with “Brother Frank’s Tape Ministry.” Worthen charged $8 for Christian-based self-help tapes, which he advertised in the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper. He received a flood of letters and responses from people in the greater-San Francisco area. These letters were, according to Erzen, “the impetus for [Worthen] to close his business and eventually form one of the first ex-gay ministries in the United States… at the time called Love in Action.”[5]

LIA began as a regular group counseling session between ten to twelve people, meeting at the Church of the Open Door, an institution with roots in the counterculture and charismatic Christianity. Mostly men, those in attendance shared their stories and prayed together. Worthen and other LIA leaders, including Kent Philpott, Open Door’s pastor, rooted their version of “conversion therapy” in Christianity. By focusing on a biblical interpretation of sexuality, Worthen and LIA concentrated on spiritual counseling.

Worthen’s ministerial approach changed after meeting Michael Bussee and Jim Kaspar, the leaders of Melodyland with EXIT (Ex-Gay Intervention Team). Founded in 1971 in the large evangelical center of Anaheim, California, Bussee and Kaspar syncretized religious beliefs about homosexuality’s immorality and explained sexual development through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. Their set-up, which included not only an active help hotline but also color-coded handouts on nearly every aspect homosexuality, impressed Worthen.

The meeting between Worthen, Bussee, and Kaspar had long lasting implications for “conversion therapy.” From the lens of U.S. intellectual history, the highly spiritual approaches to sexual orientation change that Worthen used met and melded with the classical psychoanalytic understanding of sexuality that Bussee and Kaspar emphasized. Instead of clashing, though, what materialized was something more exciting, for Worthen, Bussee, and Kaspar as well as for future proponents of “conversion therapy.” Over time, the psychoanalytic understanding of human sexuality would help “prove” that gay men and lesbians were not “born that way.” God, some insisted, would never do this to members of His flock. Instead, as Worthen and others communicated, therapy and counseling could lead men and women with same-sex attractions to heterosexuality.[6]

The connections between the sexual revolution and “conversion therapy” demonstrate the unexpected twists and turns of the recent past. At the same point in time, and often in the same large urban centers, humanistic psychologists and evangelical-minded therapists and counselors focused on the same task: helping those attracted to the same sex eliminate — or decrease the intensity of — these feelings and desires. Things changed as the 1970s progressed, though. When the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, the medical model which had long pathologized same-sex attractions began to fall out of favor in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. In their place came greater reliance on affirmative therapies which valued the sexual and lived experiences of gay men and lesbians.

In the wake of the sexual revolution, a crucial schism between professional medicine and conservative lived religion opened in the United States. In recent years, as states and local governments have banned “conversion therapy” on minors, we have seen how wide this schism has become. The current momentum seems to be on the side of those who want to outlaw sexual orientation change and gender identity therapies. But, historians are not great predictors of the future. Indeed, it is likely that upcoming battles over “conversion therapy” will be as unpredictable as the changes these therapeutic practices experienced amid the sexual revolution.


[1] Franzblau’s columns about “Homosexual, but Doesn’t Want to Change” from March 23 and 24, 1950 are located in the Rose Nadler Franzblau Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, Box 28. The original letter from the young man, which was altered slightly for the column, can be found in Box 29.

[2] “Conversion therapy” has been the preferred term among LGBTQ+ activists to categorize sexual orientation change and/or gender identity therapies. Members of the ex-gay movement, however, view the term “conversion therapy” as a propagandistic tool to turn people against what they see as essential forms of therapy and counseling for those with “unwanted same-sex attractions.” Over the past decade, proponents of “conversion therapy” have tried out a range of new terminology, including Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE) and Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy (SAFE-T), to counter LGBTQ+ activists’ efforts to ban these therapeutic and counseling practices.

[3] See Martin Duberman, Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (Boulder, CO: Westview Books, 1991/2002), 207-208, for the historian’s experience at Anthos’ “marathon of sexuality.”

[4] Matt Ybarra, “Christian Groups Press Gay People to Take a Heterosexual Path,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 1993. A copy of this newspaper article can be found in the collections of the Christian Life Commission, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Box 125, Folder 30.

[5] Tanya Erzen, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 12.

[6] See Erzen, Straight to Jesus, 17-18, for an account of the meeting between Worthen, Bussee, and Kaspar.

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