by Tomás Ojeda
I am writing this piece in the aftermath of a series of attacks against women and LGBTQ people in Chile. Numbers speak for themselves: more than ten femicides, lesbo and transphobic attacks have been committed to date, some of them right after the international women’s day. Under these circumstances, feminist, lesbian and trans activists have called to stand alert against this wave of violence, insisting in the need to protect ourselves in the absence of an effective, firm and unambiguous response from the state.
Photo credit: Fundación Iguales
The public debate around these attacks made me think about some of the uses of the prefix ‘anti’ by LGBTQ activists, queer and feminist scholars in the framing of these events as examples of a politics of anti-ness. In particular, I am interested in the unintended effects enabled by such usage, specifically when the term ‘anti’ is attached to gender and LGBTQ. With this in mind, I decided to explore what we can learn from violence against non-normative sexual and gender subjectivities, by analysing pathologising discourses that feed a particular practice aimed at curing unwanted same-sex attractions (SSA). This clinical intervention is better known as ‘reparative’ / ‘conversion’ therapies, ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE) or therapeutic accompaniment for ‘unwanted SSA’, which I will refer to as reparative practices (RP) altogether (see Wilkinson, 2013).
Despite having been extensively analysed by scholars and activists in the realm of health and human rights due to its harmful effects on the life and mental health of LGBTQ people, I want to focus, instead, on RP as a case of hetero-patriarchal activism in Latin America, specifically in Chile. In doing so, I will suggest a way to approach this phenomenon that 1) analyse RP’s political project, and 2) takes the term ‘anti’ to discuss the limits of using it within feminist and LGBTQ activism as a way to frame opposition against ‘gender ideology’. A Spanish version of this post is also available here.
Reparative practices in context
Therapeutic efforts aimed at changing same-sex attractions have been defined and explained in many different ways. Regardless of how reparative therapists understand the direction and object of change, these attempts are premised on the belief that men and women are intrinsically heterosexual, and that homosexuality and non-normative genders are developmental disorders, symptomatic reactions and/or an emotional wounds that can and should be treated (see Drescher, 1998; Waidzunas, 2015). Although different from its original version developed back in the late 1970s in the US, these interventions are now presented as a legitimate therapeutic alternative for individuals experiencing unwanted SSA, who ‘freely choose’ to treat their ego-dystonic feelings. The question of freedom, willingness and coercion are the most controversial features, especially in the case of children and young people, and in situations where LGBTQ individuals have been referred to rehab centres and conversion therapy camps mostly against their will (see Schroeder & Shidlo, 2002).
In examining RP in Latin America, I follow Annie Wilkinson’s analysis of what she called the transnationalisation of the ex-gay movement in the region during the 1990s, which emerged, among other factors, as a reactive response to the growing normalisation of homosexuality in post-dictatorship contexts such as Chile. The idea that LGBTQ people can and should be treated travelled to Latin America via religious ministries and ‘scientific’ literature mostly developed in the US, which was then translated and disseminated in the region through international conferences and training sessions with their main proponents. Despite the fact that homosexuality was depathologised in 1973, Chilean mental health professionals actively supported a medicalised approach to the subject until quite recently. This continued support can and has been interpreted as an organised reaction from mainstream researchers close to conservative religious groups to the emerging presence of the so-called ‘gay agenda’ in the public debate.
Similarly to what has been argued for other cases in the region (see Wilkinson, 2013), ‘ex-gay’ and reparative discourses were publicly discussed in Chile since the early 2000s, and have been criticised and resisted by, amongst others, LGBTQ organisations and psychology students.
Within this context, the following are the main events and critical junctures in the debate around RP to date, the majority of them connected to conservative Catholic groups based in universities, think tanks and ‘pro-life’ NGOs. In 2004, the Opus Dei University of Los Andes organised a conference that brought Dutch psychologist Gerard van den Aardweg to speak about his ideas on how to cure homosexuality. In 2007, the same university published an edited volume on the subject with local contributions that advanced the idea that homosexuality is capable of being treated. The year after, homosexuality was publicly discussed as a bioethical problem by a Catholic priest and a group of academics and practitioners from a Christian-anthropological perspective in a new book. This publication partially built on the results of two Bioethics Master’s theses on the subject developed by Chilean psychologist Marcela Ferrer and the Paediatrician Christian Schnake. In 2009, Ferrer and Schnake founded the NGO Fundación Restauración ‘at the hand of the Diocese of Melipilla’, which suggest the active involvement of the local Catholic church in its establishment.
It was not until the year 2012 that these efforts took a step further. In October of that year, the ‘pro-life’ NGO Isfem organised a public seminar at the Pontifical Catholic University right after the approval of the anti-discrimination law. The organisers are known by their position against ‘gender ideology’, and expressed their concern about ‘losing’ their right to speak out their ideas on sexuality, life and the ‘natural family’ now that the law listed sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. One of the seminar’s panels gathered together an ex-gay activist from Canary Island and the main proponents of RP in Latin America, including Ferrer. Although information about the panel originally circulated privately among Isfem’s supporters, when, days before the event, the details were leaked by the media it provoked outraged reactions from LGBTQ organisations. The discussion following the seminar in 2012 re-activated a debate within the Chilean College of Psychologists around RP’s regulation that continues to this day.
Reparative practices as a form of hetero-patriarchal activism
As some scholars have pointed out, RP ‘operates at the intersection of religious practice and the secular practice of therapy’ (Mikulak, 2018). As is characteristic of ‘psy disciplines’, it locates its politics in between a logic of regulation and governance of sexual subjectivities, but combines this with a view that emphasises the political place of religion with regards to gender and sexuality.
In order to address RP’s sexual and gender politics, I use José Manuel Morán’s notion of hetero-patriarchal activism in his analysis of ‘pro-life’ groups in Argentina, and suggest to situate RP’s ideological project within this framework (see also Kath Browne and Catherine Nash work on heteroactivism). One of the things that the concept of hetero-patriarchal activism has allowed me to do while thinking through RP’s politics, is to look critically at the structures of power in which these practices are built on, which are also the ones defended by their campaigners. In its Chilean version, RP troubles the boundary between religion and the secular by giving ‘scientific’ credentials to Christian beliefs about sexuality and the family, which conceive the sexed body as already heterosexual and naturally oriented toward reproduction. The strategic secularisation of these ideas is achieved through specific legal and scientific languages such as bioethics, thomistic psychology, and natural law, which are aimed to both disguise RP’s religious background and the sex/gender system they seek to restore.
The discursive operation I have described echoes Sara Ahmed’s important analysis on the workings of fascism and the construction of others as negative, which I found particularly relevant in the context of my analysis of RP’s ideological project. Building on her piece, by means of presenting themselves as ‘pro-family’ and friendly actors, RP’s campaigners ‘become defined as a positive in the sense of fighting for others’, an imagined heterosexual country in danger of being corrupted by the advance of LGBTQ rights. And it is ‘this “for-ness” that makes “against-ness” necessary’ as a new form of subjectivity: every time that feminists, LGBTQ activists and RP survivors oppose RP’s pathologising ideas, they are perceived as ‘being against those who are for’ the family. Therefore, ‘such critics can only be [heard as] against’ nature and the imagined heterosexual community (Ahmed, 2016).
Once RP’s supporters manage to publicly position themselves as fighting for life, the family and traditional gender norms, resistance against this kind of activism needs to find ways to counteract their power. One of the most common responses is to label these groups as ‘anti-gender’ or ‘anti-LGBTQ’. However, this strategy can lead to unwanted effects such as reinforcing the idea that supporters of RP are neutral actors. In his compelling critique on the use of the term ‘anti-gender’ as a descriptor to characterise the fight against ‘gender ideology’, Emmanuel Theumer warns of the paradoxes imbedded in this framing strategy. Paraphrasing his argument, by negating gender or the LGBTQ acronym the prefix ‘anti’ performatively re-enact its ideological operation, which, I would suggest, is neutralising RP’s politics and placing their proponents as non-ideological. Instead, I suggest that RP’s sexual and gender politics can be better exposed by highlighting what they actually advocate for: a fundamentalist understanding of ‘life’, ‘the family’ and ‘sexuality’ that builds on a hetero-patriarchal social order, which is nostalgically invoked as a ‘lost paradise’ waiting to be restored.
RP’s pathologising strategies in practice
How does RP actually achieve their ideological project? Let’s look at the workings of two specific mechanisms in the realm of clinical practice.
First, they re-pathologise non-normative sexualities and genders by presenting them as developmental disorders and anti-nature. Indeed, proponents of RP push for producing ‘scientific’ knowledge to support their belief that change is not just possible, but necessary as a preventive strategy. Within psychology, they frame their right to offer this alternative as a problem of freedoms: to choose (as patients) and to teach. The former tends to be supported by testimonies of cured ‘ex-gays’, and the latter is usually expressed through their efforts to participate in the political debate on sexual and reproductive rights (e.g. their activism against abortion and the gender identity law).
Building on what I have previously described, by means of positioning themselves as non-ideological, RP’s supporters manage to displace their depiction as homo- and transphobic citizens onto feminists and LGBTQ activists, who are then constructed as violent and intolerant political actors. As a consequence, RP’s proponents victimise themselves as the new discriminated group for not being able to provide their services, and, from the perspective of patients, by preventing access to the treatment that they are seeking. This operation is really problematic as it ends up neutralising violence by framing their positions as mere opinions that deserve public recognition.
Second, RP’s politics as a mechanism of othering. Together with this new re-pathologising operation, supporters of RP also suggest a causal relation between non-heterosexual desires and health risks such as depression, suicidal tendencies, and sexually transmitted infections. And this is a tricky operation due to RP’s understanding of homosexuality. For them, those health problems are intrinsically attached to non-heterosexual desires due to their strong pathologising view, which is different from affirmative approaches to psychiatric comorbidities in LGBTQ population, where health risks are understood as reactive responses to homo and transphobic violence (see Barrientos, 2015). Here the source of risk and the effects of violence are displaced from socio-political factors to individual ones. And this operation has the capacity to eventually inform people’s opinions on LGBTQ matters, triggering social imaginaries of disease and contagion that reinforce the production of sexual hierarchies between us and them.
The idea of an existence legible as anti-nature, fuels hate in the form of violence – both symbolic and physical – against the bodies of those who refuse to be labelled as pathological and potentially treatable. The words antinatura and diseased, to name but a few, ‘can be stuck to bodies’ through repetition. ‘And bodies can be weighed down by association’ (Ahmed, 2013), and can become object of threat from whom the imagined heterosexual society needs protection.
The question of RP’s importance as matter of public concern should not just rely on the number of people currently going through it nor in their lack of effectiveness, but also in their political role in keeping alive social imaginaries of pathologisation and violence. As I have shown throughout the piece, it is important to make RP’s ideological project visible and consider their supporters as political actors that also seek to protect and advocate for a specific sexual order. If we only treat them as ‘anti-gender’ or ‘anti-LGBTQ’ groups, we might risk leaving their sexual and gender politics uncontested, helping their cause by confirming their position as non-political and non-ideological.
Although this framing strategy needs to be analysed for each case, what remains important is the need to critically look at the ways RP’s supporters manage to always appear as not being engaged in activism. And here is where treating them as a form of hetero-patriarchal activism might help to connect their actions to broader socio-political forces that go beyond the realms of psychology and health. Feminist activism, for instance, has been successful in this purpose by connecting anti-pathologising struggles with the fight against patriarchy, the rise of right-wing populisms and the precarisation of life more broadly. Chilean mainstream academia and the public debate around RP, on the contrary, fall short on doing that critical work.
This blog post is part of a series of posts on transnational anti-gender politics jointly called by the LSE Department of Gender Studies and Engenderings with the aim of discussing how we can make sense of and resist the current attacks on gender studies, ‘gender ideology’ and individuals working within the field.
Tomás Ojeda is a PhD candidate at the Department of Gender Studies. His research examines the political place of Chilean psychology in the making up of the ‘sexual subject of diversity’, by analysing the discourses at work in the so-called turn to diversity in contemporary psy practices. Tomás holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Chile, and has worked as a psychotherapist and as an advisor in sex education in Santiago de Chile. He is also a member of the Engenderings editorial collective.
- In 2015, the ‘Gender and Sexual Diversity’ committee of the Chilean School of Psychologists issued a position statement on the risks of promoting the so-called ‘gay cure’ in the training of mental health professionals. Although it was an important step toward the regulation of these practices, the document has no legal power to impose sanctions on non-collegiate psychologists, which is the case of Marcela Ferrer and other reparative practitioners who can continue providing these services.
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