Homosexual orientation, we are told, can’t be changed. Not only that, but attempting to change it is considered potentially dangerous, and some people (such as Barack Obama) advocated outlawing the practice. I must confess that I know very little about what is called “gay conversion therapy,” but an article in the Atlantic recently talked about how Christians have turned against it.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Christian right poured money and muscle into promoting the message that homosexuality was a curable disorder. It advocated conversion therapy, which promised to turn gay men and women straight. But last week, when President Obama announced his support for a national ban on such therapies, few voices on the Christian right spoke up in protest. The announcement confirmed the evaporation of support for these approaches among the communities that once embraced them. As Alan Chambers, who once ran America’s largest ex-gay ministry, told me, “sexual orientation doesn’t change.”
Now I have read and heard testimonies from people who formerly identified as homosexuals but no longer do, like Christian singer and songwriter Dennis Jernigan, whose powerful ministry I saw for myself in seminary many years ago. At the same time there have been some high-profile cases where someone apparently converted from homosexuality to straight in their sexual preferences, only to change back again.
One such case was that of John Paulk, who went straight after living for years as a drag queen and gay prostitute. He later married a woman who had been a lesbian and who went through the ministry that Paulk helped lead. Years later Paulk was caught frequenting gay bars, and in 2013 apologized for his ministry and admitted that he was returning to the gay lifestyle and that he and his wife were getting divorced. He said that his sexual orientation didn’t change after all, even though his wife apparently was still on board with the ministry they had been involved in.
I deeply loved my wife, Anne, who still believed in the movement, and I knew it would be extremely scandalous to embrace homosexuality after the career I’d had.
Paulk says that his sexual orientation didn’t change. Alan Chambers says that sexual orientation doesn’t change, period. Other formerly self-identified homosexuals say otherwise. All of this is anecdotal, but there is actual data to support Jernigan and Anne Paulk. I was reminded of an article some time ago that reported the results of identical twin studies with respect to homosexual orientation.
Contrary to the progressive view, the study concluded that sexual orientation is not genetic. People with same-sex attraction are not born that way. If they were, in cases where one identical twin is gay, the other should be gay also. But instead of 100% or anything close to that, the research found a correlation of 11% for men and 14% for women. That wasn’t the only interesting finding of this study.
“Neutral academic surveys show there is substantial change. About half of the homosexual/bisexual population (in a non-therapeutic environment) moves towards heterosexuality over a lifetime. About 3% of the present heterosexual population once firmly believed themselves to be homosexual or bisexual.”
“Sexual orientation is not set in concrete,” he notes.
Most changes in sexual orientation are towards exclusive heterosexuality.
Even more remarkable, most of the changes occur without counseling or therapy. “These changes are not therapeutically induced, but happen ‘naturally’ in life, some very quickly,” Dr. Whitehead observes. “Most changes in sexual orientation are towards exclusive heterosexuality.”
Numbers of people who have changed towards exclusive heterosexuality are greater than current numbers of bisexuals and homosexuals combined. In other words, ex-gays outnumber actual gays.
Note that well: there are more ex-gays than there are practicing homosexuals. Yet what we hear from progressives is that sexual orientation doesn’t change. Apparently that’s not true, even if it didn’t always change in every case or change the way people wanted it to change.
I can’t say anything about gay conversion therapy, and some of what the Atlantic article described seemed quite damning against it for reasons other than the progressive dictum that “sexual orientation doesn’t change.” From the article:
By the start of the American cultural revolution in the 1960s, many mental-health professionals, clergy, and politicians supported the idea that homosexuality was a mental-health disorder that could be cured through some combination of prayer and “therapy,” which included electroshock therapy, masturbatory reconditioning, and giving patients nausea-inducing drugs while forcing them to view homosexual erotica.
If this sort of thing was actually done, then Christians should be appalled. I think using methods like this is clearly unbiblical, and I don’t see how attempting to recondition someone by having them engage in a different sin than the one they are trying to be freed from is at all justifiable. But I’m also suspicious that the Atlantic isn’t telling the whole story. They certainly aren’t telling the whole story about sexual orientation, which according to actual research is fluid and not fixed. But by allowing the debate to be framed around orientation to begin with, traditionalists have lost the fight before it begins.
The Atlantic doesn’t tell the whole story about Alan Chambers, either. Chambers has, in fact, disavowed the approach that he previously advocated, but he is also still faithfully married to his wife and has not gone back to a gay lifestyle like Paulk. Instead it seems that Chambers’ issue had to do with the fact that these gay conversion ministries were not helping people deal with temptation, they were trying to rid people of the temptation altogether, but only one kind of temptation (same-sex attraction) and using unbiblical methods to do it. Getting rid of homosexual desires became more important than the Gospel. I admit that I’ve only read a little of Chambers’ story so I might be misreading him. But from what I’ve seen I don’t know if I disagree. He says that he still affirms biblical teaching about homosexuality and marriage, and still holds that homosexual practice is sinful. The issue, however, is that the church has often made people with homosexual desires feel inferior or second-rate, and tried to force those desires to change. When they didn’t change, the church gave condemnation instead of love and grace.
One other thing struck me when reading several of these cases, and that is that many of these ministries aimed at ministering to same-sex attracted people were being run and led by formerly same-sex attracted people. Even when I heard about these ministries years ago, I thought that was quite risky. And I really have to wonder how many of these people were mature enough and strong enough to be put into those positions in the first place. Often evangelicals are guilty of having a celebrity approach to leadership. Giving people like Paulk such a high public profile seemed almost to invite scandal.
It’s also interesting that the research on same-sex attraction indicates that adolescents changed more frequently. But that’s just life, isn’t it? A lot of things are harder to change after reaching adulthood. In fact, maybe everything is. People who convert to Christianity do so most often during or before adolescence. But that doesn’t mean change is impossible, even if anecdotally. Rosaria Butterfield was a lesbian, an atheist, and a tenured college professor when a local pastor reached out to her. If you’ve never read her story, you can read it here.
But even in sharing it I have the worry that I’m helping set Butterfield up for a fall of her own. There must be intense pressure on her and others like her from the left, since their existence goes against all that progressives believe in. Even Wheaton College students protested against Butterfield being allowed to speak on campus out of fear that she would make students with same-sex attraction feel bad. If that’s the pressure coming from within evangelical circles, one can only imagine what it’s like on the outside.
I don’t know what it’s like to have temptation in the area of homosexual behavior. I do, however, have plenty of experience with various others sorts of temptations. Some temptations which I had before my conversion to Christ went away immediately. Some took longer, and others I struggled with for decades. Others will no doubt remain a struggle until my dying day. We will never be free from temptation this side of eternity, and I truly feel for someone who struggles with same-sex temptations. The evidence, however, does show that some people do lose that temptation (no doubt to encounter other temptations), which in secular parlance would mean that their “orientation” has changed. I expect, however, that the truth about that will be less and less welcomed by progressives and their sympathizers.
I would be remiss not to say that passing laws against gay conversion therapy is not a good idea, even if certain varieties of this practice are morally objectionable. The only direction that can lead is to outlawing anyone even talking about sexual orientation changing, and ultimately that could have very dire consequences for people like Rosaria Butterfield and Dennis Jernigan, not to mention the rest of us. But a topic like that would require a post of its own.