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Changing Sexual Orientation: A Rejoinder

By August 1, 2005 No Comments
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The article by David Myers and Letha Scanzoni in the April issue is the third feature article on the subject of homosexuality to appear in Perspectives within a little over two years, the first being Fred Van Geest’s article “Homosexuality and Public Policy” (December 2002), and the second being David Timmer’s article “Same-Sex Marriage: Crisis in Society, Summons to the Church” (January 2005). All three approach the subject from one point of view. If they had no recourse to other sources, the readers of Perspectives would have to conclude either that there is no other point of view on this issue or that the journal has a bias. There is, of course, another point of view, and the question needs to be asked as to why the magazine has not published a well-written piece by a qualified author setting out that point of view.

The goal of Myers and Scanzoni’s essay is obvious–to pave the way for their forthcoming book, What God Hath Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage. They are well aware that there can be no case, let alone a Christian one, for gay marriage if it can be shown that a change of sexual orientation is possible for practicing homosexuals. So they set out to undermine claims that such a thing is possible.

The first way in which they attempt to do that is to present only one side of the anecdotal story. For example, they highlight the decision of British Courage Trust founder Jeremy Marks to cease trying to assist practicing homosexuals to change their orientation and instead to enable them to “reconcile their faith and sexuality.” They also cite his opinion that his initial ministry “has proved to have an extremely destructive effect on the lives of many gay people [and] has had an extremely corrosive effect on their faith in God.” However, they fail to inform us about a similarly well-known case, only in the opposite direction!

Joe Dallas, founder of Genesis Counseling, is a prominent author and speaker for the ex-gay movement. He was a former gay rights activist and staff member of a gay Metropolitan Community Church. Here is what he has to say on this subject.

I remember clearly, and with inexpressible regret, the day I convinced myself it was acceptable for me to be both gay and Christian. Not only did I embrace the pro-gay theology–I promoted it as well…Twelve years have passed since I realized my error, and during those years the pro-gay theology has enjoyed unprecedented exposure and acceptance…An answer is required…the Church must respond…While many mental health authorities believe homosexuality is unchangeable, many others believe it can be changed…[For example,] the Director of the New York Center for Psychoanalytic Training…remarked on the ‘misinformation spread by certain circles that homosexuality is untreatable,’ saying it did ‘incalculable harm to thousands.’

The second way in which Myers and Scanzoni attempt to undermine the case for a change in the orientation of practicing homosexuals is to see the homosexual therapy glass as half empty rather than half full. They bemoan the fact that “more than a dozen (ex-gay) organizations have, after touting successes, been abandoned by their own founders, who are now ‘ex-exgays.'” They highlight the tragic lapses of former ex-gay Christian leaders like John Paulk and Michael Johnston. They feature quotes by present ex-gay leaders like Jeff Ford and Bob Davies that appear on the surface to cast some doubts on the possibility of homosexual healing and transformation. They cite with empathy the fact that “the major American mental health associations, representing nearly half a million professionals, are essentially unanimous in rejecting the assumption of reparative therapy (that homosexuality is a disorder that needs a cure) and in challenging the belief that such therapy can enable gays and lesbians to reverse their sexual desires.” They frame the issue of whether “the likelihood of sexual reorientation is sufficient to encourage the effort” with the negative measurement of the “failure rate” rather than with the positive measurement of the considerable success rate. And it is quite apparent that they include themselves in the crowd of skeptics that take the testimonials and track records of ex-homosexuals with a bag of salt.

However, suppose we take the opposite tack. What do we see if we view the homosexual therapy glass as half full? There are 115 local ministries in the USA and Canada and links with over 150 ministries in 17 other countries under the Exodus International umbrella alone. Would so many people be engaged in such ministries for so long (Exodus began in 1976) if there were no convincing reasons to do so? Exodus Communications Director Randy Thomas states, “There are tens of thousands of well-adjusted former homosexuals and thousands of credible reparative therapists.” No movement of any kind, however high minded, has ever had a perfect leadership track record. However, Bob Davies, North American Director of Exodus, states, “I challenge any social worker who thinks change is impossible to talk to our ex-gay leaders. Change is not a theoretical possibility– it is a daily reality for thousands of people, some of whom left homosexuality over 25 years ago.”

And what about the data that the authors fail to mention and that are ignored by the professional organizations they cite? From 1997-1999, the New Direction Ministry’s “Homosexuality and the Possibility of Change Project” in Toronto examined significant research studies published by reputable sex researchers in scientific journals and books that document some kind of change in the homosexuals who were the subjects of their studies. They found that a total of 86 persons who were exclusively or predominantly homosexual acquired heterosexual behavior, 287 persons experienced a partial shift in sexual orientation,  Myers and Scanzoni see the homosexual therapy glass as half empty. What do we see if we view it instead as half full?  and 45 persons experienced a full shift of sexual orientation. Note that the changes reported in the first group reflect behavioral changes, those in the second group reflect identity changes, and those in the third group, most significantly, reflect orientation changes. In sum, a total of 418 confirmed homosexual persons were professionally documented as having made encouraging changes towards heterosexuality–a significant number of them transformational changes. In addition, the 1997 NARTH survey of homosexual recovery therapy programs shows that homosexuals have slightly better recovery statistics than Alcoholics Anonymous (28.8% vs. 25-30%), and the Kinsey spectrum data show that significant shifts in sexual orientation often occur apart from any therapeutic treatment.

On the one hand, the fact that some testimonials turn out to be suspect should not lead to what amounts to a wholesale rejection of the plethora of people who have described and demonstrated impressive sexual transformation over a significant period of time. On the other hand, the judgments concerning homosexual reorientation and recovery therapy of the American Psychiatric Association and other mental health associations should be exposed for what they are. Aren’t these the same organizations that opined that Freudian psychological archeology was the only way to go in psychiatric treatment not so many years ago? And, when it comes to the subject of homosexuality, have they not too often tended to confuse dispassionate psychological research with political dogma?

The third way in which Myers and Scanzoni attempt to undermine the case for a change in the orientation of practicing homosexuals is to try to discredit significant evidence that contradicts their premise that “some things [meaning homosexual orientation] can’t be changed.” Robert Spitzer stunned the professional psychiatric world when, at the 2001 American Psychiatric Association convention, he reported his research on “200 Subjects who Claim to Have Changed their Sexual Orientation from Homosexual to Heterosexual.”   The judgments of the APA and other mental health organizations concerning reorientation and recovery therapy should be exposed for what they are.  It was, after all, Dr. Spitzer who, as the authors note, “nearly three decades earlier had played a key role in getting homosexuality eliminated from the psychiatric classification of disorders.” Spitzer reported the results of his extensive research project, based on lengthy interviews with 200 homosexuals who had undergone some form of reparative therapy that resulted in at least five years of sustained change, as showing “the possibility of change in some gay men and lesbians.”

Rather than being encouraged by this about-face by a longtime leading antagonist to homosexual reparative therapy, the authors attempt to discredit his research! First, they ask why, if thousands of homosexuals have undergone change, only 274 came forward to be a part of his study. Second, they note that less than half of both the men and women interviewed recalled being “exclusively homosexual” before the change effort, and only 17 percent of the men and 54 percent of the women were “exclusively heterosexual” afterward. Third, they claim that the research is unreliable because it rests on retrospective testimonials. Fourth, in their view the Christian media sensationalized the report and distorted its findings by claiming the results showed that all homosexuals can change if they want to.

In response, one might wonder, first, why any homosexuals who had undergone significant change as a result of reparative therapy would have wanted to be “guinea pigs” for a study done by someone who had been one of the chief protagonists against the very reparative therapy from which they had benefited. Second, to most impartial observers, the results of the study reflect a remarkable success rate when compared to the then-accepted wisdom within the psychiatric world that reparative therapy was a waste of time and could even be considered harmful. Third, much psychiatric research of necessity rests on retrospective testimonials. How could it be otherwise? So why cite this as a “fault” in this particular study? The task of the researcher is to set up a study in a way that minimizes the possibilities of false testimonials, a task that Dr. Spitzer took considerable pains to carry out. Fourth, media distortions of study results do not negate those results. Dr. Spitzer made carefully delineated claims about homosexual change based only and fairly on the data he collected.

In their October 2003 issue, the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior published 26 peer commentaries on Spitzer’s work (a total of 50 pages), and Spitzer’s four-page reply. The list of names cited reads like a “Who’s Who” of the academic world, the majority of them being psychiatrists. One would assume that, given the stance of the major American mental health organizations, Spitzer’s research would be universally condemned. Quite to the contrary, 13 out of 23 peers include at least some positive comments in their critiques. Here are a few examples. “Spitzer’s findings are consistent with the idea that some people do change their sexual orientation in some respects” (Bancroft).   The authors ignore a central concept of the Christian gospel–that any person enslaved to any sinful condition can experience change.  “The current scientific context contains explicit or implicit universal claims that sexual reorientation therapy is unhelpful and/or harmful. Spitzer’s study offers prima facie exceptions that cast doubt on these generalizations” (Wakefield). “Spitzer provides evidence that some gay men and lesbians are not only able to change selfidentity, but are able to modify core features of sexual orientation, including fantasies” (Byrd). “Spitzer’s study is strong evidence that reparative therapy can assist individuals in changing their homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation” (Hershberger). “The distinguishing feature of Spitzer’s research is not the finding that changes occur, but the argument that they reflect changes in core sexual orientation” (Rust). “Spitzer’s study accomplishes something akin to [Hooker’s (1957) study of psychopathology among homosexuals]: whether it is ever possible for a person with a homosexual orientation to report change in the direction of a heterosexual orientation. His study suggests that the answer to this question is ‘Yes'” (Yarhouse).

But let Spitzer speak for himself. In his October 2003 post-critique reassessment of his study, Study Results Should Not Be Dismissed and Justify Further Research on the Efficacy of Sexual Reorientation Therapy, he says:

The conventional wisdom in the mental health profession is that reorientation therapy can get some gays to identify themselves as ‘heterosexual’ and therefore ‘ex-gay,’ but few, if any, will report changes in sexual attraction, fantasy, and desire consistent with true changes in sexual orientation. The study findings call this view into question. In a sample of 200 ex-gays, the majority reported changes in sexual attraction, fantasy, and desire that are consistent with what would be expected if true changes from predominantly homosexual to predominantly heterosexual orientation had occurred.

The fourth way in which Myers and Scanzoni attempt to undermine the case for a change in orientation of practicing homosexuals is to ignore the gospel. Is it not surprising that in a condensation of a key chapter in their forthcoming book, A Christian Case for Gay Marriage, not one word is said about a central concept of the Christian gospel–that any person enslaved to any sinful condition can experience change? The Scriptures are replete with assertions and testimonials that Jesus Christ, through his Spirit and through his body (some members of which he has equipped with wonderful gifts for spiritually informed psychotherapeutic ministry), can do the equivalent of changing a leopard’s spots. One quotation should suffice.

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NIV)

Elsewhere, Paul unpacks this idea of being “sanctified,” or changed. At times he refers to Christians as having been saved, at other times as being saved, and at still other times as those who will be saved. What he means is that having confessed, repented, and believed the gospel, Christians have been declared to be saved through Christ’s saving work. They are then called to become what they have been declared to be, which is a lifelong process during which growth and healing take place, particularly after lapses. (“Be patient, God isn’t through with me yet.”) When the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, Christians will finally reach the goal that they and God have been striving for together–they will be completely saved, changed, healed, and renewed.

That seems impossible to secular skeptics, but those who have opened their lives to such power and to such ‘therapy’ know better, practicing homosexuals included. This is the great hope that all of us, not just our homosexual brothers and sisters, must rely upon. Therefore, instead of publishing a book on a Christian case for same-sex marriage, I hope the authors will change their mind and come out with one on the Christian case for change–for practicing homosexuals and for all of us!

How sad that the very people our homosexual friends should rely upon to tell them the truth about the destructive nature of homosexual practice, and the even greater Truth about the Good News of change, are instead discouraging them from renouncing that practice and seeking that change. What a tragedy that the thousands of practicing homosexuals who have embarked on this journey of sanctification and who have made significant progress are met with skepticism and even irritation because they contradict someone’s theory. As Alan Chambers, Executive Director of Exodus, puts it: “Where tolerance has increased for the gay community, it has decreased for the ex-gay community. The pro-gay contingent is out to absolutely obliterate the truth about biblical sexuality, annihilating those who challenge their views and destroying any opposition to their agenda by any means necessary.”

Wendell P. Karsen is Director of the Master of Theology Program at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.