“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 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 Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church related to gay people.