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Interview: Dr Christian Jessen

The good doctor goes undercover to investigate controversial gay 'cures' in the UK and the US

We’ve heard a lot about gay ‘cure’ therapies recently. What made you want to go undercover to find out more?
I really wanted to do this documentary on many different levels. On a ‘doctory’ level, I wanted to look at things that we were treating in medicine that we shouldn’t be treating. On a personal level I feel it’s an affront to us all, as gay people, that this is happening. Then I began to think, if you were a young gay man in Russia with what’s going on, of course you’d look for a way out, or any therapy to make life easier for you. For those of us sitting here in London, snuggly and comfortable, should we be telling them they shouldn’t be doing this? It raised that question as well I think, and it’s an interesting one.

Was there a specific ‘moment’ or main drive that kickstarted the whole thing?
The main drive was actually a patient who came to see me. He said, “I know you’re gay and I’ve come to you because I want you to help me become straight. Where can I find this sort of therapy?” This was only last year or so, and I remember in my head not handling it very well. I said, “Whoa, why are you asking me this? Why are you not happy being a gay man? We’ve got freedoms and everything”. But then you talk about his background and where he comes from, homosexuality is a capital offence there; you’re executed for being gay. This suddenly shook all what I thought, knew and had settled in my head. It then made perfect sense why he was coming to see me. Here I am telling him that he shouldn’t be doing it and should be out, loud and happy. Now it actually sounds offensive saying this to him, you know?

It must be so difficult to come to a country where you can, more easily, be who you want to be, but you still have a deep rooted psychological hangover from the culture you spent your formative years in?
Yes, and we’ve got protections here, but not a magic wand. We’re doing all right, but in other countries they’re going backwards. There’ll be more of these therapies out there, more therapists preying on vulnerable people. That whole question of nature or nurture is something I’ve taken a scientific interest in. I never truly believed these therapies work, but there are many therapists who claim they work and many people who’ve gone through them who claim they work; that they’ve had their sexual orientation changed. I just wanted to see if there was any truth in that or not.

You met some of the therapists themselves. Are we dealing with rational, professional people here?
What they’re doing is not therapy. Therapy should never have an agenda. Therapists should never impose their own personal beliefs on someone trying to force a change, and that’s what this therapy is doing. Proper therapy, you look to explore the patient’s head and help them to sort things out. This therapy is enforcing a change on a patient, which is an unnatural change. This is not what true therapy is about.

Did you find there’s a massive evangelical element to a lot of this, too?
Oh, massive. What was difficult is that I didn’t want this to become a documentary that was less about gay issues and more about religion. Of course religion is always there in the background, you cannot ignore that. Religious prejudice is the main driving force behind people wanting to undertake these therapies and the therapists who deliver them.

You took some of these ‘treatments’ yourself in the programme, didn’t you?
We undergo aversion therapy that we used to do on the NHS here until not so long ago, even in the 70s and 80s. I put myself through that. It’s a form of shaming and torture, which makes you feel like absolute shit. It doesn’t change anything.

How did you feel during and after that?
I cry a lot. What you realise is that, most definitely, it’s an intimately innate core part of your being, personality and who you are. So to have that ripped out of you, exposed and shamed is incredibly painful. That’s what I went through, and I only did it in a half-hearted way. There are people who want to put themselves through this in desperation because they want any other life… to be anybody else. I find that incredibly sad.

Did doing the show give you an insight into the mindset of the ‘ex-gay’ individuals you met? Did you manage to understand their point of view at all?
Well, it did raise another issue: am I being the witch-hunter? Here I am jabbing away at people who clearly aren’t happy with who they are and were struggling. They’re now something else they say they’re happier being and here am I saying “I don’t believe you, prove it!’ Suddenly I’ve become the persecutor and that was very disturbing. I didn’t really acknowledge this in the film but I’m realising it now. There they were at their Ex-Gay Pride wanting to recognised and left alone. So, whether they’re lying or not is kind of irrelevant. The problem comes when what they’re doing by insisting your sexuality can be changed puts pressure on us all to change. It doesn’t help the prejudice and that’s my issue with it. We would genuinely like to know if you could change your sexual orientation and that’s a scientific question not a moral one.

What advice would you give to anyone reading this if they’re thinking of undertaking one of these therapies?
I would say there’s a lot of help out there to help you be more comfortable with who you are. I think ‘homosexual’ is a better term, because he word ‘gay’ cuts to a lifestyle rather than the sexual orientation for many people, who worry that being gay means you have to go clubbing and wear Versace or whatever. And of course it doesn’t. Some people watching this documentary may find it surprising that I’m gay. They see me as a doctor and have never thought about my sexuality. It’s not a secret, but for a lot of the general public, this is new. I hope people will see I’m a normal person with a normal job who happens to be gay, and that’s useful.

Undercover Doctor: Cure Me, I’m Gay is on Channel 4 (UK) on Tuesday 18 March, 10pm. See more information on the Channel 4 website.

Words: Lee Dalloway

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