The therapists at Bachmann & Associates aren’t very good at turning gay people straight. I don’t just mean that the Lake Elmo, Minn., based Christian therapy clinic, founded by Rep. Michele Bachmann’s husband, professional counselor Marcus Bachmann, don’t know how to turn gays straight. Doctors say nobody does. Mainstream medicine has pretty much universally rejected the notion that homosexuality is a treatable neurosis – though that theory is the underpinning of Michele Bachmann’s opposition to gay rights.
When I say they aren’t very “good” at it, I mean that Bachmann & Associates counselors don’t seem to know much about the controversial practice, called conversion or reparative therapy. It typically employs a combination of pseudo-Freudian psychoanalysis and lots and lots of prayer in an effort to make gays straight.
But news outlets have pounced on an undercover investigation by the gay rights group Truth Wins Out that suggests otherwise. The group’s John Becker in June used a hidden camera to record five visits to the Bachmann clinic. Becker told a counselor there he was a conflicted Christian who sought to rid himself of his homosexuality.
“Clinics Owned by Michel Bachmann’s Husband Practice Ex-Gay Therapy” blared the headline in The Nation on July 8. The Daily Beast wrote about the Nation story, “If there was any doubt that [Marcus Bachmann] was lying, it disappeared on Friday.” ABC News went with, “Michele Bachmann Clinic: Where You Can Pray Away the Gay?”
But the transcripts from those taping sessions, provided to TIME by Truth Wins Out, offer evidence that while Bachmann & Associates counselors seemed to embrace the notion that homosexuality is a fixable sin, their clinic is no conversion therapy mill.
A therapist didn’t appear to claim any expertise in how to change Becker’s homosexual urges – at one point he even turned to the Internet to refer Becker to a specialist in conversion therapy, since that is what he said he wanted. And, at times, the therapist seemed hesitant to go along with Becker’s goading.
“What can somebody struggling with this do?” Becker said. “Is there ever a way to get rid of it completely?” The therapist responded that he thought so, but admitted that, “it might not go away completely” and that he “doesn’t have a ton of experience with this issue.” He then told Becker that it is “important as we sort this out that you remember not to beat yourself up too much” about homosexual urges.
Much has been written about Bachmann & Associates’ alleged embrace of Janet Boynes’ ex-gay manifesto Called Out, in which Boyne claims she is cured of homosexuality. But it is Becker who introduced the therapist to the book in his third session at the Bachmanns’ clinic. “I have glanced at this book before,” the therapist said. “But haven’t read it yet.”
At one point, Becker tried to push the therapist to confirm that homosexuality is a “demon” inside him. “It that what it is?” Becker asked. The therapist demurred. “I don’t know if that, I don’t know if that’s quite – it doesn’t sound like that’s quite on the right track here,” he stammered back.
Throughout the transcripts, Becker’s therapist came across as somebody who was willing to try to make Becker straight, but didn’t usually do that kind of thing for a living.
I know what such a therapist would sound like. Back in 2005, I was stunned by reports of torn Christian gay men committing suicide after failed attempts at conversion therapy. I posed as a gay man for Salon and went through conversion therapy.
My counselor back then had his gay-to-straight formula ready. He told me flat out in the first session that homosexuality “is not consistent with the manufacturer’s desire. It is not what the body is for. It is not what procreation is for,” he said. “I am going to draw you out of that because the people around you are into that.” It didn’t take any goading on my part.
“The psychoanalytic perspective has always considered homosexuality and same-sex attraction to be a neurosis,” he told me. “They still do and they still treat it.” (Untrue. Homosexuality was removed from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. Mainstream doctors don’t try to “fix” gays.)
The basic notion put forward by my therapist was that strains in my relationship with my father transformed into same-sex desire years later. I could shed these sinful desires through the formation of healthy, platonic same-sex relationships and healthy doses of prayer.
The Bachmann & Associates counselor didn’t exhibit that kind of firm grip on the conversion therapy hypothesis, as controversial as it is. “It was not one of the obnoxious ones,” psychiatrist Dr. Jack Drescher, who is among many in mainstream medicine who criticize conversion therapy, said of the Bachmann & Associates treatment. But he added, “The narrative is pretty similar in terms of what God’s intention for you is, what your body is for, and so on.”
“God has designed our eyes to be attracted to a woman’s body…to be attracted to her breasts,” the Bachmann therapist told Becker, speculating that Becker’s homosexuality could have started with seeing a man “with his shirt off” as a child. He suggested that acting more masculine might help control homosexual urges. And when Becker asked him how to treat his problems, the therapist answered, “We can definitely pray.”
Regardless of whether that technically counts as reparative therapy, the Bachmann & Associates counselor clearly subscribed to the belief that homosexuality is deviant behavior, a choice or an illness – a sentiment that Rep. Bachmann shares.
“His frame of reference was reparative therapy,” Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, says of the Bachmann therapist. “He was not dogmatic. He was not a bad person. We have a well-intentioned therapist practicing harmful therapy.”
The clinic referred questions to Michele Bachmann’s campaign, but contacts there did not respond to questions on the matter. Meanwhile, Marcus Bachmann told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that his clinic would try to help a homosexual turn straight if asked, but the therapists there typically focus more on Christian-themed counseling of anxiety and depression, which might explain why Becker’s therapist came across as familiar with only the basic tenets of conversion therapy. “We don’t have an agenda or a philosophy of trying to change someone,” Bachmann said.