The Virtuous Struggler: The Price for Purity in Reparative Therapy

Since the removal of homosexuality from the second edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, the pathologization of same-sex attraction has all but ceased in the secular medical field. However, many evangelist and fundamentalist Christian denominations continue to support reparative therapy, which claims to be able to transform gay and lesbian individuals into heterosexuals. While social scientists have done wonderful research on the cultural and personal implications of reparative therapy, and disability scholars have worked tirelessly to evidence the dangers of medicalization, there has been no attempt to understand how reparative therapy actualizes its psychoanalytic theories, situating them in the context of a heightened awareness to the social construction of disability. Moreover, despite the dozens of autobiographical narratives, quantitative analyses, and historical recordings of the experience, efficacy, and lineage of reparative therapy, there has been little critical attention paid to the rhetorical strategies used by reparative therapists themselves to justify and carry out their techniques.

My intent with this project, then, is to begin asking the necessary questions, exploring what is said behind the therapists’ doors, how it is said, and why. I will be analyzing the reparative therapy movement from a rhetorical perspective, using a social model of disability to bolster my understanding of how individuals are transformed from queer to sick. My hope for this piece is in line with Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip, when she urges more intersectional work, blending academia and activism. I, too, wish to prompt an interest in coalitional activity, specifically between queer and disability scholars, who both serve communities who can testify to the pain of living out a medicalized identity.

To most efficiently and clearly explain my research, I have organized this academic paper into three sections, each building off its predecessor to culminate in the final portion. First, I will offer a brief history and description of reparative therapy, focusing on its oscillating position between secular research and religious propaganda. Then, I will continue into an analysis of one of the rhetorical strategies used by reparative therapists themselves: constructing the virtuous struggler. Third, I will comment on the implications of reparative work, noting not just the effects on the participants themselves but also on the disabled community. In this section, I will look ahead, envisioning future research that can be done, collaboration that should take place, and coalitions that need to be formed.


Part of panel Healthcare, Psychology, and Well-Being
October 1, 2016, 11:15–13:00