The National Assn. for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality positions itself as a scientific group dedicated to helping gay men and lesbians shed same-sex attractions and realize their "heterosexual potential."
Its statements routinely outrage gay-rights activists. But two commentaries posted online in recent months by members of NARTH's scientific advisory committee have raised concerns among its closest allies as well.
One psychiatrist called for allowing schoolchildren to shame and ridicule classmates who don't act according to stereotypical gender roles. Another board member, a therapist, asserted that slaves may have been better off in chains than in "savage" Africa.
One of NARTH's scientific advisors has quit in protest, and a prominent therapist has canceled his presentation at the group's annual conference next month. Alan Chambers, who leads the nation's largest support group for "ex-gays," urged NARTH's members to "think long and hard about the mission of the organization."
At issue are comments by Canadian psychiatrist Joseph Berger and New York psychotherapist Gerald Schoenewolf.
In a blog on NARTH's website, Berger expressed disgust with a Northern California school that accommodated a cross-dressing kindergartner and other children with "gender-variant" behaviors. Berger said that instead of teaching tolerance, schools should "let the other children ridicule" boys and girls who don't conform.
"It is a mistake for various interfering, ignorant and biased busybodies to try to 'counsel' the other children into accepting the abnormal," Berger wrote. "It is very healthy to be able to draw the line between what is healthy and what is sick."
Schoenewolf's essay on political correctness not only seemed to justify slavery, it also denounced the gay-rights movement as "mob rule." Using explicit language, Schoenewolf asserted that "the entire planet has now been forced to agree that [homosexuality] is normal."
"This puts a real spotlight on what we're dealing with.... This organization is incredibly reckless and irresponsible," said Wayne Besen, a gay-rights activist who founded a nonprofit, Truth Wins Out, to keep tabs on the ex-gay movement.
NARTH's premise that homosexuality is a disorder that can be overcome through therapy is routinely cited by activists pushing to get the "ex-gay" perspective into public schools. Besen said he hoped the controversies would slow that movement by discrediting the Encino-based organization -- and its claim to take a scientific approach to homosexuality. "This is a group of people with some very peculiar, if not dangerous, views," Besen said.
NARTH President Joseph Nicolosi acknowledged that some of the posted comments "were poorly phrased" but said he intended to keep Berger and Schoenewolf on the board.
Both of their commentaries have been removed from the NARTH website. Nicolosi said the group did not support public shaming of children; an official NARTH statement also expressed regret over Schoenewolf's remarks about slavery.
But those apologies have not quelled the controversy.
Therapist Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, has long been concerned that NARTH overemphasizes poor parenting as the root of homosexuality. He's also uneasy that NARTH rejects even the possibility of a fulfilling life with a same-sex partner.
At the upcoming conference, Throckmorton had hoped to persuade NARTH therapists to adopt the approach he uses, which is to help patients find harmony between their sexual identity and their religious values. For some, that means trying to change their attraction to the same sex; for others, it means finding peace with a gay identity.
"Therapists should not impose their view of the outcome on clients," Throckmorton said.
Late last month, he canceled his presentation, telling NARTH that he feared he would not get "a scholarly consideration" of his approach.
The two groups that regularly stage conferences on "overcoming homosexuality" -- Focus on the Family and Exodus International -- have both affirmed their support for Nicolosi. But Chambers, the president of Exodus, made clear he disagreed sharply with how NARTH has handled the controversy.
Berger's advice that children with differences be ridiculed "wouldn't be something we would tolerate from someone who was part of our board," said Chambers, who recalls being teased for acting effeminate as a boy. "We have to be very careful about what we say and how we say it. Peoples' emotions, hearts and even lives are at stake."