31 Jan 2019

Exclusive: Interview with the ‘gay conversion’ therapist who came out as gay

Culture Correspondent

David Matheson said he regrets perpetuating the idea that being gay is a disorder. “It is horrifying to think that I was part of a system that held people like me down,” he said.

One of the leading figures of the controversial ‘gay cure’ therapy movement in America made headlines all around the world last week when he publicly came out as gay.

In an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News, David Matheson, 57, admitted the practise which nearly 700,000 Americans have undergone, is not only built on a harmful philosophy, but should be banned.

For decades, the Mormon conversion therapist ran retreats which offered therapy to suppress or manage their sexuality, with the intention to help them live lives as straight men rather than gay men.

“I regret my part in perpetuating those ideas,” he said. “Perpetuating the idea that being gay is a pathology, a disorder. Perpetuating the idea that God is not okay with people being gay. That, I regret. I mean, it held me back and it held lot of other people back.”

Asked if he was sorry for the hurt and damage that he caused, he said: “Are you kidding? I mean it is horrifying to think that I was part of a system that held people like me down and I’ve had some conversations with other people who have been harmed by it. It creates a lot of sorrow.”

Matheson wasn’t just part of the system; some of his most influential work was as the architect of retreats offering conversion-therapy, with a dossier of techniques for men, designed to suppress sexual attraction to other men. And he’d claimed these therapies had worked for him too.

“I will say I repudiate the idea that therapy can and should be used to change a person’s sexual orientation because it just can’t. I do regret my part in propagating that view because I was in a sense kind of an agent of a repressive culture and that makes me really uncomfortable.”

Channel 4 News has spoken to one person who had been on one of the gay conversion retreats Matheson co-founded. He told the programme he attended the camp on a number of occasions and was subjected to traumatic psychological drama techniques and homophobic scenarios were recreated which left him feeling suicidal years later.

The retreat denies this and claims these therapies were designed to heal and remove painful memories and that many people benefited.

Matheson said: “Some of the stuff that you’re saying was stuff that I was involved in co-creating. I mean some of that stuff came out of my mind. And we were well intended but what we didn’t think about at the time, was okay it may be helpful to these five, but these two or three or four or five or ten over here could get really messed up by that.

“If those retreats are doing that sort of stuff they need to stop.”

Asked if gay cure therapy should be banned in America, he said: “Any therapy that is based on the idea that being gay is a psychological disorder, which it’s not – that believes that being gay is wrong or bad, which it’s not, and that it can be changed and ought to be changed. Any therapy based on that idea has a great potential to harming people, and that kind of therapy should be stopped.”

Matheson acknowledges his part in the hurt and harm that was caused, saying: “I can think of things that I created that I put into these weekends and I think back on them and honesty I want to crawl into myself because there’s this sense of, there’s this cringe, there this sense of ‘oh my gosh I used to think that was a good idea’.

“It was very much motivated particularly in the beginning by the idea that I need to believe I can change and so I need to try my hardest to help you change.”

He also said that, as a former ‘gay cure therapist’, he is surprised by his own homophobia: “One of the really uncomfortable things that I’ve been discovering, is my own homophobia. And as I look back I see that I clearly had lots of homophobia. I will still have these stigmas about gay people. I will learn someone is gay and I will still have this thought, this homophobic thought – and I’m like ‘Dave that’s you too’.”