A tribute to “ex-gay” therapist Joseph Nicolosi by a pro-LGBT activist

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Joseph Nicolosi (January 21, 1947 – March 8, 2017) was an American clinical psychologist, founder and director of the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic in Encino, California, and a founder and president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). Nicolosi advocated and practiced reparative therapy, a practice that he claimed could help people overcome or mitigate their homosexual desires and replace them with heterosexual ones. – Wikipedia (accessed March 15, 2017)

It is fitting that I should learn of Joseph Nicolosi’s recent passing from a dear friend instead of from some random news source on the Internet.  It was an “ex-gay” counselor, 21 years ago, at a charismatic “mega”-church (“mega” for northwest New Jersey) who first told me, while I was pastoring at Sparta, NJ, Faith Baptist Church, about Nicolosi and recommended me to him for reparative therapy; and now it is a dear friend from Michigan who told me of Nicolosi’s passing.

BRONX, NEW YORK.  by Rev. STEPHEN PARELLI.  MARCH 14, 2017.

Unlike so many others like me – an openly, self-accepting gay man and activist – I was saddened to learn, just now, of Nicolosi’s death.

It may be hard for my readers to understand that while I have, in countries around the world, exposed the myths of reparative therapy, Nicolosi was a formidable force for good in my life.  I would not, for one moment, discount that.

I was 43 years old when I entered into therapy with Nicolosi.  The year was 1996.  I was in weekly sessions with him, by phone, for nine months.  His office was in California.  I was pastoring in Sparta, New Jersey.

My own father passed away in January of this year – just two months ago – and I felt nothing.  Nicolosi, the scorn of the LGBT movement in the area of counseling and psychology, has died and I deeply feel his parting as a call to pause and remember and be thankful.  He was the dearest friend I had in the years I suffered the most as a closeted gay man.

I hasten to add that I realize that by making the coordinates between my acute needs and, at the same time, his availability through counseling, that some will discredit my positive assessment of Nicolosi as irrelevant.  But that is preciously the point:  I was a quick study for him and he met me where I was.

To illustrate what I mean:  Nicolosi put me in touch with three other gay men, all his clients – we had all agreed to be connected by phone – one in Massachusetts, one in Chicago, and one in my own state of New Jersey.   As I spoke with each of these individually, again and again, some more than others, I learned that Nicolosi’s approach with me was totally unique.  His counseling was not a pre-fab, one size fits all.  In fact, with the client in Chicago, as we compared notes with what was happening in our individual counseling sessions with Nicolosi, we could not, in the least recognize the same counselor.  Nicolosi knew us uniquely for ourselves and counseled us each with a language that was in keeping with our own make-up and individuality.

In the course  of time, I visited each of these fellow-clients in their own homes and settings while in therapy with Nicolosi.  What I gained from these experiences (along with the phone calls between us), I could write a book.  We were lifelines, it appeared to me, each for the other.  So, Joseph Nicolosi, gave me three good friends, at the time, each of them struggling like me, all of us educated and three of us already well established in our fields of profession.

If I were to simply enumerate what I gained by being in therapy with Joseph Nicolosi, that is, the benefits and contributions to my wellbeing (though each item merits a whole paragraph, if not an essay), the incomplete list would look something like this:

  • The provocative and impacting inter-cliental relationships I made with three fellow counselees as stated above.
  • The sense that Nicolosi knew me, cared for me, in a unique way, different from how he cared for his other clients, as explained above.
  • Contrary to one of his key principles of reparative therapy that gay men should work hard to connect with their fathers, Joseph Nicolosi told me: “I’ve never told any counselee this before, but you need to turn 180 degrees away from your father and run from him as fast as you can.”  He diverted me from my father contrary to one of his pinnacle principles in mitigating against homosexuality.
  • He wondrously affirmed my need for male-human appropriate touch and told me that for days and nights at a time I could lay in the arms of Jose (my lover and husband now of 20 years).  And I did just that, week after week, with my therapist’s approval.  I was, at the time, a pastor and a married man, and with my wife’s consent, based on my therapist’s counsel, I would spend Friday nights in Brooklyn at Jose’s apartment, crying and talking and just drinking in male human non-sexual touch, wrapped in his arms in his bed, long into Saturday afternoon.  I would return to Sparta Saturday evening and preach on Sunday in the Baptist church where I was the pastor.  All of this under the watchful care of Joseph Nicolosi.
  • He showed me how to interpret dreams in a way that would benefit one’s self by making every object in a dream a representation of something about myself. To this day, whenever I have a dream, I use this method for self-reflection.
  • In discussing, once, the fact that I had grievously “sinned” at one point during the time that lapsed between counseling sessions, Nicolosi taught me the principle that “where sin did abound, grace did much more a bound” (he gave the Bible reference!). He instructed me in the idea that grace, here, is to uncover what aspects of our personhood, or otherwise, shaped or invoked our sinning.  It was a remarkable concept, that out of sin, we could learn something, a principle he employed without insinuating guilt or shame.
  • On one occasion, when I felt Jose, my closest friend at the time, was slipping through my fingers, I called Nicolosi without an appointment, and asked for his advice. I gave him my take on the situation after presenting the facts as I knew them.  He assured me Jose was not withdrawing, but just the opposite:  Jose’s despairing actions indicated his immense interest in me.  That was my interpretation and Nicolosi agreed with me without reservation.  I immediately phoned Jose (so desirous of his intimate friendship) and told him he was acting as he was (withdrawing) because he actually liked me a great deal.  He confessed it was so.
  • It was Nicolosi who introduced me to, and encouraged me to involve myself in, New Warriors, an international men’s group in which men mentor men in weekly sessions and in wilderness outings. I attended sessions in Manhattan and I attended one wildness weekend event.  It was a positive, growing experience.
  • It was Nicolosi who motivated me to take up tennis and at the local gym which led to my interaction with area pastors from denominations other than my own, moving from tennis to open conversations over coffee, meeting a personal one-on-one level, peer with peer, pastor-to-pastor.
  • He introduced the idea that my father-hunger was made evident by the fact that I am physically attracted to the male chest. He discussed with me how American Natives indicate different body parts as emblematic of certain human needs.

My time with the ex-gay movement as an attendee and participant – its weekly meetings, retreats, and my sessions with Nicolosi – was short lived as compared to some who waste years and years in such groups.  I had purchased many of the popular ex-gay books of the 1990s along with Nicolosi’s books and devoured them.  I eventually came to reject the claims of the “ex-gay” movement and Nicolosi’s reparative therapy and I wrote about it here, exposing its myths as I understood them.

Joseph Nicolosi, in one of our sessions and in response to my question (as I recall it), told me he was Roman Catholic.  That his faith, as defined by his church, meant he believed that God had created us male and female and that, therefore, there was no possible room for homosexuality.  Of course, I have come to outright reject that notion as conclusive and I think that perhaps, on some level, I never fully accepted that idea at the time Nicolosi gave me his apologetics for it.

But you see, I wasn’t there for the theology, or for the arguments for or against any kind of therapy, I was there for my life.  Literally, I was drowning in my own sea of human suffering.  And no man, nowhere, loved me for who I was; and there was no man with whom I could talk about my needs as a gay man, or my needs just as a man, period (in at least one session with Nicolosi I discussed briefly my marriage).  Joseph Nicolosi was the first man ever to understand me and to speak to me in ways that seemed to uniquely talk just to me.  Sure he was on the wrong track, but when I was with him I was a person just as I am.  I was fully involved in each session; I told him exactly what I felt and thought; I hid nothing from him; and he answered me in ways that were affirming yet forward-moving.  I felt my therapist loved me in the way a counselor should love the counselee.  It was all very good.

So then, in spite of his views and his practice, Joseph Nicolosi was a positive force in my life.  As an adult, I had the option to hear him, profit from him where possible, and in the end receive or reject what his overall purpose and message was.

Of course, what I did was to take the good and leave behind the bad.  And that, too, was something Joseph Nicolosi taught me.  Not that I didn’t already know it, but he reinforced it.  And for me, unlike what many of my much respected follow activists think, Joseph Nicolosi wasn’t all bad, at least not for the nine months of sessions I was fortunate enough to involve him as my mentor, counselor, and confidant.   If Nicolosi is the “sin” in therapy, then, as he himself said, “where sin did abound, grace did much more abound.”  Thank you, Nicolosi.

________________________

This article was written in, and published to the Internet from, the Bronx, New York, on March 14, 2017, by Rev. Stephen Parelli.

 

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