In any discussion of homosexuality from an orthodox perspective, the question of reparative therapy is in the background. It seems to me that our response to this question cannot be a straightforward “yes” or “no,” but must be carefully nuanced. Such treatment can have positive effects, but at the same time, many Christians have promoted these therapies (and allied themselves with their practitioners) with an alarming degree of enthusiasm and lack of subtlety, overlooking the dangers in this response to the pastoral questions of homosexuality.
A number of people I’ve known have spoken of the positive effects it has on their lives. Reparative therapy can help people who have difficulty relating to those of the same sex by providing more confidence and social ease. It can help render more robust the masculine or feminine identity of those who feel their gender identity is in some way deficient. Moving to a heterosexual identity (even in the face of continuing same-sex attractions) can also provide greater self-esteem and a more coherent sense of self to those struggling very deeply with their sexuality. Sometimes, even, people seem to achieve a real change in orientation.
The most prominent recent study, Ex-Gays? by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, offers promising figures for success, and is often cited by people and groups interested in promoting orientation change. But close examination of the study reveals a more problematic picture.
Out of ninety-eight original subjects, sixty-one were able to be categorized at the end of the study. The other thirty-seven either explicitly refused or were regarded by Jones and Yarhouse as passively refusing through non-communication to continue. Of the final sixty-one, just eleven subjects (18 percent of completing subjects, 11 percent of beginning subjects) were registered as “Success: Conversion,” while seventeen (28 percent of completing subjects, 17 percent of beginning subjects) were registered as “Success: Chastity.” (As a chaste man who is also gay, I am inclined to dispute categorizing chastity as a success for orientation change.)
When we look more closely at the success stories, the picture becomes even more complicated. Out of the five examples of conversion given, two describe themselves as either “heterosexual” or “primarily heterosexual by definition of who I have sexual activity with,” while at the same time frankly admitting to ongoing homosexual attractions.
Even more striking is the complete about-face by one man who ranked as a conversion success, but retracted his responses, and embraced a full gay identity and lifestyle after the book had been essentially completed, as the authors themselves note. That he was registered as a conversion success but quickly went to the opposite extreme deeply compromises the meaning of “success” in these efforts and sheds doubt on the reality of the other successes. (Similar “success stories” are not difficult to find, Gabriel Arana being a recent example). Moreover, when several of the respondents who reported as conversion successes readily admit to ongoing same-sex attractions, the definition of “heterosexual” is rendered highly ambiguous.
So, what are we to make of this study’s results? We need not absolutely reject orientation change. But it is frequently presented as a strong hope, an ideal to be striven towards, with good chances of success. For a person who is deeply struggling with her sexuality, who desperately wants, as many people do, and as I once did, not to be gay, the ready offer of orientation change can become an object of fixation, even an idol in which all of one’s hope is placed.
There are distinct power dynamics at play in orientation change that demand reflection. Because a homosexual person generally discovers his sexual orientation in puberty, the offer of the hope of change either comes during adolescence (if he grows up Christian), or in the early stages of religious faith (if he comes or returns to Christianity later in life). In both cases, the person is generally looking to religious leaders as a neophyte looks to the trusted guardian of the faith. What he receives from them is received as the authentic expression of the faith—which makes the possibility of its failure all the more damaging.
Too often, I have seen people who placed their hope in orientation change in this way come crashing down when they realized it wasn’t working. On a psychological level, it can lead to depression, to self-loathing, to suicidal tendencies. The message that the absence of successful change makes one a lesser Christian or some kind of failure is always present, either explicitly or implicitly. There is an undertone of condescension in the way some religious leaders promote orientation change, while magnanimously allowing that not every Christian is required to pursue it.
On a spiritual level, this failure to change sexual orientations can easily shatter someone who placed her hope in heterosexuality, leaving her extremely vulnerable to throwing off the faith entirely. Those who offered a hope that proved false render themselves complicit in the damage it can do to a soul.
Given orientation change’s low rate of success, and the apparently precarious status of that success (on exhibition in the about-face from “Success: Conversion” to “Failure: Gay Identity” in the study), the odds of eventual failure are far, far too strong. Our response to homosexuality is playing with souls: surely, we should play the game that has most hope, rather than the one that seems more neat and tidy?
Of course, there are dangers in celibacy, as well. People do take up the “celibacy/singleness” approach, only to discard it later when the burden becomes too heavy, and we must not examine celibacy through rose-tinted glasses, either. But we should be much more hesitant to propose orientation change.
By promoting celibacy, we are simply promoting what the sexual ethic of the churches demands. But by promoting orientation change, we are promoting a shift far deeper, far more rooted in someone’s particular personhood. In pressing for this “extra mile,” we incur a certain moral connection to the result. If it succeeds, well and good. But if it does not, great damage can be done, and we can end up implicated.
It seems to me to be far more fruitful to simply promote chastity. Like any risky therapy, orientation change should be recommended only in strictly defined circumstances where success seems more likely or where a risky treatment is the only chance for hope. The path of celibacy, in the end, is really dependent on our struggles for Christian virtue, rather than struggles for a heterosexual functioning. As a goal, heterosexual functioning may remain elusive despite our best efforts, and is too often ephemeral even when it does seem to have been achieved for a season.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America. This piece is adapted from a post at spiritualfriendship.org.
Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse
“My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” Gabriel Arana
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