Homosexuality and false hope

“These are my desires / and I will give them up to you this time around and so / I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground / marking its territory of this newly impassioned soul . . .   But you / you’ve gone too far this time / you have neither reason nor rhyme / with which to take this soul which is so rightfully mine.” -Mumford and Sons, ‘Roll Away Your Stone’

The subject of sexual orientation change efforts has come up in a lot of different contexts since my recent pieces in First Things. From what I can tell, it seems that such efforts can have significant positive effects; at the same time, the ready promotion of orientation change is a dangerous response to the pastoral questions of homosexuality.

First, the good news! A number of people I’ve known have spoken of the positive effects it has on their lives. For people who have difficulty relating to those of the same sex around them, it can sometimes help with that by providing more confidence and social ease. For those who feel their masculine or feminine identity is in some way deficient, these efforts can help render it more robust. For someone who is struggling very deeply with their sexuality, moving to a heterosexual identity (even in the face of continuing same-sex attractions) can also be valuable in terms of self-esteem and a more coherent sense of self. Sometimes, even, there does seem to be 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 sources interested in promoting orientation change. But a close examination offers significant considerations which create a more problematic picture.

Out of 98 original subjects, 61 were able to be categorized at the end of the study. Those who did not complete, as a general rule, either refused or were regarded by Jones and Yarhouse as passively refusing through non-communication to continue. Of the final 61, 11 subjects (18% of completing subjects, 11% of beginning subjects) were registered as “Success: Conversion,” while 17 (28% of completing subjects, 17% of beginning subjects) were registered as “Success: Chastity.” (As a chaste man who is also gay, I am inclined to dispute the category of 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 a complete about-face, ranked as a Conversion success, but who retracted his responses, and embraced a full gay identity and lifestyle after the book had been essentially completed, as the authors themselves note. While we can say what we will about his moral character, the fact that he was registered as a Conversion success, but quickly went to the opposite extreme, demonstrates that the meaning of “success” in these efforts is deeply compromised. We could also refer to Gabriel Arana, whom Joseph Nicolosi (of NARTH fame) asked to present himself to Robert Spitzer as an example of successful change (his story is also a harrowing account of the damage this therapy can cause, if it goes awry).

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. When one of the eleven Conversion success goes into reverse and entirely abandons the project between the time of the completion of the book and time it went to press, the reality of these successes is likewise rendered questionable.

So, what are we to make of this? Not an absolute rejection of orientation change, surely. But too often, it is presented as a strong hope, with good chances of success, as an ideal to be striven towards. When a person is deeply struggling with her sexuality, when she desperately wants, as many people do, and as I once did, to not be gay, the ready offer of orientation change can often become an object of fixation, sometimes even an idol in which all of one’s hope is placed.

There are distinct power dynamics at play when questions of orientation change come up that are worth reflecting upon. Because a homosexual person generally discovers himself to be homosexually oriented in puberty, the offer of the hope of change either comes during adolescence, in one growing up deeply Christian, or in the early stages of religious faith, in one coming to or reverting 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 for the person’s understanding of the faith.

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 too easily 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 loss of hope can easily shatter someone who placed their hope in heterosexuality, leaving them extremely vulnerable to throw off the faith entirely.  Those who offered a hope which proved false render themselves complicit in the damage that can be done to a soul in this way.

Given the low rates 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 this happening eventually 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 is neatest and tidiest? Exodus International has lately started moving in this direction by cutting ties with NARTH; hopefully, they will continue on this path, and the rest of the church will follow suit.

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 wear examine celibacy through rose-tinted glasses, either. But there are two factors which should make us much more hesitant to propose orientation change.

When we do so, we offer a hope which has a significant hope of bottoming out. This, in itself, should give us some pause. This treatment is a double-edged sword, which might provide true healing, but more likely might lead to failure, self-loathing, and self-destructive tendencies.When we put this card on the table, something happens to us. 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. By pressing for this “extra mile,” we incur a certain moral connection for the result. If it succeeds, well and good. But if it does not, great damage can be done, and we can end up implicated. Based on my own experience as a gay man, and as someone who has been left to pick up the pieces too often when orientation change fails, it seems to me to be far more fruitful to simply promote chastity, and keep orientation change therapy closely guarded, and to keep possibilities of orientation change as a last effort, when all else seems to have failed. 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 too often remains elusive despite our best efforts, and is too often ephemeral even when it does seem to have been achieved for a season.

Joshua GonnermanJoshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First ThingsSpiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church related to gay people.

17 thoughts on “Homosexuality and false hope

  1. Really beautiful and well-said. Though I am a straight, chaste woman, I can relate to “conversion” efforts gone awry, as well as (typical?) idolatrous leanings during my spiritual life. I love the end: “the path of celibacy…is really dependent of on our struggles for Christian virtue…” Perhaps the journey is fundamentally about idolatry all along…

  2. A brave and fruitful article, Joshua. The entire notion of success/failure in therapy (for any reason) is, in my opinion, potentially dangerous for the reasons you listed above. Such issues that require therapy are so intimate and essential to us that it’s almost unfair to put it to the test. It’s like saying a person with anxiety fails if she leaves therapy and has a panic attack later on down the road. The occurrence of spiritually “bottoming out” is familiar to me, and it’s nice to be able to give it a name. Though I have never been through sexual orientation change efforts formally, I was pretty naive as an adult convert (I suppose most are) in thinking that my Faith could “heal” the part of my soul that was drawn to women, so I ignored it – pushed it down and kept it silent. And every time those feeling would bubble to the surface, I would feel like I had failed; I would start to question my very being. How could God love me if He wouldn’t change this part of me? Growing into my Faith and learning more about the true nature of God as Love helped me to answer that question, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve really started to accept that part of me. While I don’t necessarily embrace it, I can hold it and carry it with me. And I have found that doing so, rather than denying its existence, has made it easier to grow in God’s love and live my life within His will. Thanks again for your article. Cheers!

  3. Why do you think the issue of orientation-conversion is considered so important by many? It seems to me that those I have encountered who have been most attached to it, see it as bolstering their idea of homosexuality as a mental pathology, despite there being many mental pathologies that are currently incurable in anycase.

  4. It’s worth noting, Gwen, that Christ is our healer, our Christus medicus, so your intial intuition was right. Healing usually comes, however, not through cutting away, but through transfiguring what is wounded.

    Josh, an interesting question, and one I’m currently thinking of writing on. There are different answers for different parties, but on the part of those who are promoting these thungs without being deeply involved in them, I am inclined to suspect that the answer is that it is easy.

  5. I’ve always been rather wary of attempts to change one’s sexual orientation — not only because of the apparently low success rates and dubious science, but also from a moral perspective…

    The Catholic Church teaches that any form of deliberately willful sexual arousal (in thought or in deed) is a serious violation of the sixth and ninth commandment. Doesn’t the whole process of “changing one’s sexual orientation” include, at least implicitly, trying to get one to the point where he or she is aroused sexually by the opposite sex? Now I know that advocates of reparative therapy might not actually advocate direct sexual stimulation (e.g. self-abuse with straight porn and such craziness). But still… at the very least, doesn’t it create some sort of psychological pressure on the person to get sexually aroused, given the goal in mind?

  6. I am intrigued by your description of someone who “placed their hope in heterosexuality.” The average church does very little to combat the culture’s idolatry of sexual fulfillment. The difference is, that when a person “places their hope” in marriage, or in having children, or in some other kind of sexual/relational fulfillment, church culture encourages them in that direction rather than providing a way to deal with idolatry. (Which explains why so many Christians are no better than others in dealing with the loss of those hopes, say, through miscarriage.) With same sex attraction and Christianity, the idolatry is redirected as well as encouraged. (I’m not saying all relational desire is idolatrous, but that’s what “placed their hope in” sounds like.) There’s just not a lot of room to be a person who will always want something that you’re not going to get, and who grows through that without the conventional happy ending.

  7. I wonder if an emphasis on “conversion” to heterosexuality and associated rates of “success” has its origins in a prosperity gospel mentality or other modes of thought that generally see the project of faith as a skipping over the realities of human brokenness to a premature arrival at a final state of things (i.e. the eschaton). Even further, one has to contend with the fact that the Lord’s risen body still reveals transfigured wounds.

    When all-too-human goals (i.e. what I want and desire my life to look like, or what those around me desire for the same) take precedence over the simple but demanding universal call to holiness (the Lord’s invitation to follow Him / what He asks), it seems that the waters get very muddy.

    It might be better to put first things first — the discernment of one’s vocation and the universal call to holiness / the life of charity. To quote the words of one of the characters in Karol Wojtyla’s The Jeweler’s Shop: “Everyone has received an existence and a love. The only question is: how to build a sensible structure from it.” Trying to generalize about what that ‘building of a sensible structure’ looks like — apart from the particularities of one’s own situation — seems unhelpful at best. For this reason, I find both a blanket condemnation of reparative therapy or an insistence on it to be simplistic and not true to the diverse experiences of people attracted to members of their own sex. Since no one has definitively shown that such attractions arise from a single factor or constellation of factors, it seems unwise to suggest a single approach to addressing the situation vis-a-vis one’s Christian vocation.

    The question of how the same-sex attracted person approaches his or her vocation seems, at root, no different from the rest of humanity: One pursues / corresponds with the grace to be free for the pursuit of the good. If there are human endeavors (psychology, counseling etc.) that lead to a greater freedom to live one’s vocation, that’s great. The main thing, for every Christian, is the following of Him… which each person carries out within the context of both the brokenness and the grace that one has received. If Saint Paul can consider even the thorn in his flesh as a grace for his Christian life, it seems we should be extremely circumspect about deciding what (other than willed sinful behavior) we ought to be rid of on the way to Christian perfection.

  8. You’re right about the fact that many aspects of the ex-gay movement have their roots in the Word of Faith movement and other charismatic traditions. That’s probably the main reason that I, coming from a more mainline tradition, did not really find conversion attempts appealing when I started grappling with my sexuality. I also had less of a desire to be “normal,” which I think is the primary motivation to change for many people.

    No gay Christian gets exactly what he or she wants. We live in a ridiculously difficult tension, and we have all, at one point or another, tried to navigate some way out of it. Some of us long to be normal, to be heterosexual and live the American dream with a husband or wife. Others long for homosexuality to become completely accepted, both in secular society and in the Church. While these two paths have led to vastly different movements — the ex-gay movement and the gay-affirming theology movement, respectively — I think they ultimately come from a desire to escape the inherent tension in being a gay Christian.

    Those of us who are gay, celibate and Christian are learning to live in the tension. It’s tough, but it’s worthwhile. I think those who desire a heterosexual lifestyle often end up buckling under the pressure. Most of the men and women I know who have defected to gay-affirming theology came from the ex-gay movement. Once their orientation efforts failed, they jumped to the opposite end of the spectrum instead of choosing to live in the middle ground like we have. This isn’t really surprising, though. I think most people tend to gravitate towards extremes instead of living with tension and apparent contradictions.

    Still, I think the “single and celibate” route seems more honest, emotionally healthy and theologically sound than the conversion route. Ironically, the most successful and healthy mixed-orientation marriages I know of involved people who had previously accepted celibacy, singleness and even gay identity. Gay celibates are, I think, more likely to pursue marriage with authentic friendship in mind first, as opposed to using marriage as a sign of “healing” or a merit badge of “normalcy.”

    P.S. I’m the same commenter as “Jay.” I simply changed my name since I realized that posting under my full name wasn’t that wise.

  9. Joshua, that would be consistent…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_of_Faith#Prosperity

    “Word of Faith teaches that God empowers his people (blesses them) to achieve the promises that are contained in the Bible. Because of this, suffering does not come from God, but rather, from Satan. As Kenneth Copeland’s ministry has stated, the idea that God uses suffering for our benefit is considered to be “a deception of Satan” and “absolutely against the Word of God.” Additionally, if someone is not experiencing prosperity, it is because they have given Satan authority over their lives.”

  10. I have been coming across this same balanced perspective lately in other discussions which has saved me from going down the path of disillusionment and depression. I have experienced a type of healing or freedom from same sex orientation only to realize later that it is still intricately woven into my personality; for lack of a better description; and there is only so far I can go down this path without feeling some pressure to be something I am not – some of this is self imposed- some of it urged by other Christians who can only see heterosexuality as the preferred image to chase after. So thank you for the courage to express this publicly with grace and dignity

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