Sunday, July 8, 2012

He Brought Me Out

National Public Radio did a story this weekend on conflicts among evangelicals over "ex-gay" ministries and their pseudoclinical wing, "reparative therapy."  It begins with quotations from a gay man who joined Exodus International but "found after 24 years that the changes that I had hoped for, or that I had prayed for, actually never occurred."  Research even by "evangelical and secular scientists puts ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy on the defensive."  As a result, "Last month, Exodus International made it official: It would no longer associate with or promote therapy that focuses on changing sexual attraction," even though the reactionary Christian theologian Robert Gagnon "says he thinks conversion therapy sometimes works."  Well, if he thinks so, it must be true.

Before my fellow Homo-Americans get too excited about this, they should remember that Exodus lagged only a couple of years behind the secular psychiatric and psychological profession.  Although the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its index of mental illnesses in 1973, it left room for conversion therapy until at least 2000.  The American Psychological Association issued a statement conclusively rejecting conversion therapy in 2008.  (I've noticed that a lot of people conflate the two APAs, like this writer at Jezebel.)

There was no excuse for the APA's waiting such a long time.  It had been established long before 1973 that therapy didn't change people's sexual orientation.  Sigmund Freud himself had written in 1936 to the mother of a homosexual American man that homosexuality "cannot be classified as an illness," and:
By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of the treatment cannot be predicted.
Most of Freud's American followers thought they knew better, and change therapy flourished in the US in the 1950s and 1960s.  The most optimistic (if that's the word) proponents of change therapy claimed that one-third of their patients who completed therapy were "cured," while another third saw some change and another were unaffected.  It wasn't always clear what constituted success, however, and followup was poor, generally limited to a few months before the therapist fell out of touch with his patient.  "Relapses" were common.  (One gay writer on this subject wondered whether patients would even begin therapy if they knew that soon after completing it "successfully," they'd still be having sex with other men.)  Remember that this was all done in the name of Science, by people who often repudiated religion and sometimes claimed that homosexuality was the result of religious repression.  Opponents of the APA reclassification often declared the the decision was the result not of science but of political correctness, a familiar tactic among scientific apologists to this day.

The ex-gay ministries have long fascinated me because of their reliance on the forms of secular science, generally buying into long-discredited psychiatric theories that have no relevance to "sin" in the first place.  If homosexuality is a "sickness," it's not a "sin."  True, preachers have often spoken metaphorically of sin as a sickness; but even if they were right, it's a sickness without a cure.  Yet it quickly became obvious that repentance and prayer alone wouldn't do the job of changing people's sexual orientation, and a new generation of unscrupulous therapists began preying on frightened and often coerced victims, this time around claiming the prestige of religion.  But as far back as the 1980s I remember seeing statements from the ex-gay ministries admitting that God didn't take homosexuality away, that considerable patience and willpower were required.  (Yes, that's The Onion.  Don't take it literally.)  Fair enough, but the ex-gay ministries continued to market themselves as bringing about miraculous change.  And every so often there were spectacular scandals, where prize ex-gay alumni were discovered visiting gay bars, or worse, the ministers were found to be using their flock sexually.

But it's routine for the news media to "discover" new stories that aren't new at all, isn't it?

There's a significant quotation in the NPR story:
But [Alan] Chambers at Exodus International says conversion therapy does not help. Rather, it damages, because it makes people feel sinful for their natural inclinations. Worse, he says, the church can make people feel like outcasts. ...

Chambers compares same-sex attraction to adultery or pride. But Gagnon says homosexual behavior is worse according to the Bible.
It's interesting that Chambers should refer to homosexual desire as "natural."  But heterosexual desire is no less natural, yet Christianity (like most if not all religions) regulates it very strictly, and transgressors -- fornicators, adulterers -- are expected to "feel sinful for their natural inclinations" and to be cast out (i.e., outcasts) if they refuse to repent and conform.  I was about to ask rhetorically whether Chambers has read the New Testament, but of course he has.  He must know these things as well as I do.

Suppose that Christianity did put same-sex desires and genitality on the same level as heterosexuality.  If gay Christians took the Bible seriously, they'd have to contend with such teachings as plucking out one's eye if it leads one to sin, that even looking lustfully at another person of either sex is the same as committing adultery, that the truly devout will become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, that divorce and remarriage will be forbidden, that marriage is second-best to sexual abstinence, and so on.  But who takes the New Testament's teaching on sex seriously nowadays?  Even the most conservative Protestants use the Old Testament as their guide, and carefully evade Jesus and Paul.

The Jezebel article I mentioned above quoted Slate's William Saletan, who argues that change therapy is legitimate in cases of "borderline homosexuality," whatever that is:
Would you tell [...] a patient that her understanding of God is wrong? Are you sure her attraction to women is more fundamental than her religious beliefs? Is peace with the lesbian part of her sexuality worth the destruction of her family or her faith? And most important: Do you think you can answer these questions without knowing more about her?
This remarkable passage shows just how widely the distinct roles of therapists and counselors have been confused.  If I were a therapist, I would tell a patient or client who demanded change therapy that, in the first place, change therapy doesn't work; in the second, that "sin" and mental illness are not the same thing, and that if she wants help resisting temptation she needs to talk to a pastor.  (Heterosexual temptation isn't considered mental illness, after all.)  A religious counselor, by contrast, might very well tell a counselee that "her understanding of God is wrong" on theological grounds; but it's not a therapist's job to do so.

[P.S. A therapist might honestly promise a client to help her or him gain more control over impulse, so as to resist temptation and refrain from committing what Anita Bryant called "the act of homosexuality."  But this wouldn't be a cure.  Great thinkers as diverse as Bryant and Norman Mailer have claimed that if you don't translate desire into action, you aren't really homosexual.  For Christians like Bryant, however, that claim runs afoul of Jesus' admonition that just looking at another person with desire is the same as doing the deed, and will be punished the same.]

"Is peace with the lesbian part of her sexuality worth the destruction of her family or her faith?"  "Peace" is a weasel word, but since it's likely to the point of certainty that "the lesbian part of her sexuality" will not disappear, she needs to make peace with it.  (I think Saletan is blurring the difference between making peace and surrender.)  The same would be true for a married person who has fallen in love with someone other than her spouse: the feelings probably are not going to go away, but one can learn to live with them.  There's a long tradition in Christian teaching that believers are supposed to learn to deal with what God feels like doing to them, not to get him to stop doing it.  Why should he "take the gay away" in the first place?  There are more alternatives than leaving one's spouse on one hand and self-flagellation on the other.  But the ex-gay ministries and the change therapists advertise the elimination of homosexual feelings, at least until you get to the fine print.

In practice, of course, many church-affiliated counselors have training in secular psychology, and some of the skills and approaches are the same whether the setting is secular or religious.  Saletan asks rhetorically, "Do you think you can answer these questions without knowing more about her?"  I don't; that would be a counselor's job -- to learn more about the client.  But change therapists already know the answer, and that's the trouble: they don't have to live with the consequences.

Even if change therapy worked -- and as I've said before many times, I wish it did, since so many GLBT people are miserable even after they come out, and want not to be gay -- no one would (or should) be obliged to choose it.  People can and do change their religious affiliation, but we take a dim view of forcing them to change it; the same would be true of sexual orientation if it were as malleable as the change therapists claim.  One of the most damning things about the evangelists for change therapy is that they choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence, accumulated over more than a century, that it doesn't work.  The other is that, for all their talk of keeping their patients' "options" open, they keep the options strictly limited.

There's evidence that younger evangelicals are less homophobic than older ones, and are either pressuring their churches to change their doctrines or practice, or leaving.  This fits with Mark McCormack's evidence that homophobia is declining in England.  The new admission by Exodus International looks like part of this pattern.  It also reminds me of Bob Jones University, which fought tooth and nail for decades to maintain a racially discriminatory shop, claiming it to be the unchanging will of God -- but gradually loosened its strictures and finally abandoned them altogether, declaring "We can't back it up with a verse from the Bible."  That wasn't what they said in the Sixties!  No doubt the Biblical prohibitions of sex between males will also become incomprehensible as time goes on.  Until they do, however, the change therapists and their apologists need to be kept honest.