TORONTO (BP)–In a report that has resulted in widely differing interpretations, a 130-page paper from an American Psychological Association task force Wednesday concluded there is little evidence that “gay-to-straight” therapies work, but — in a nod to Christian conservatives — said religious individuals who desire to leave homosexuality should be assisted in doing so.
The report from the APA’s Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Homosexuality was much-anticipated and was presented to the body’s annual convention following a two-year study in which the task force examined 83 studies on the issue, most of them conducted before 1978.
Many conservatives were left wondering exactly what the paper said, and they weren’t alone. The Associated Press and CNN.com ran stories largely focusing on the paper’s critique of reparative therapies — “Programs to change gays to straights don’t work,” CNN’s headline read — while the Wall Street Journal focused on what it saw as the APA’s “striking departure” from its past liberal positions on homosexuality.
In truth, the report had something for both sides of the issue.
For those who say homosexuality is an unchangeable characteristic, the report said, “[T]he results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE [sexual orientation change efforts].” It also affirmed APA’s position that homosexual attractions are “normal and positive variants” of human sexuality.
For those who believe homosexuality can be changed, the report concluded, “The appropriate application of affirmative therapeutic interventions for those who seek [sexual orientation change efforts] involves therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of clients … without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome.” Although such a sentence may not sound significant, it actually is: It gives the patient the ability to decide his or her direction in the therapy. Conservatives feared the APA not only would call such attempts unethical but also conclude that patients who desire to change should not be assisted. In another possible nod to Christian conservatives, the report concluded, “[W]e take the perspective that religious faith and psychology do not have to be seen as being opposed to each other.”
Bob Stith, the Southern Baptist national strategist for gender issues and the representative of the denomination’s Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals, said “the report was much better than I had expected” and that it had “enough to give anyone who read it some support.” But he, like other conservatives, was frustrated with much of the report.
“There are thousands of people who can say with the man born blind in John 9, ‘I once was blind but now I can see,'” Stith told Baptist Press, pointing to passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 where Scripture declares that homosexuals can change.
Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, is one such former homosexual. Exodus is a Christian ministry that assists homosexuals who want to change.
“Optimistically, I think that this is gradual change [at APA], and we believe that gradual change is better than no change at all,” Chambers told BP. “So, for the APA to come out with some nod toward religious folks who are conflicted about these issues, it’s a good sign. What’s not good is that they deny the truth of my story and the truth of the story of tens of thousands of other people like me that have experienced not only significant but real and lasting change.
“The APA has said that their psychologists and counselors need to respect a client’s religious beliefs,” Chambers added. “… That’s the first time they’ve ever acknowledged anything of that nature.”
Part of the divide between the APA and the Christian community, Chambers said, could be attributed to what is and is not considered change. For instance, the report criticized recent studies that conservatives have touted as supporting their position. APA brushed off those conclusions by noting the study’s subjects “became skilled in ignoring or tolerating their same-sex attractions.” The APA considers such a person a homosexual. But Chambers and others like him believe that, biblically speaking, the APA is simply describing former homosexuals who are resisting temptation. In other words, those former homosexuals — according to Christian theology — are winning their battle with sin.
“We all have something that we’re called to give up,” Chambers said of Christians. “… It’s hard with a secular organization like the APA to help them grasp what we as Christians know to be true, and that is that there’s all sorts of change that happens when someone submits their struggles to the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, agreed and said the APA believes if there hasn’t been a change in what Christians would call “temptation,” then there hasn’t been true change.
A former homosexual is “tempted in ways that I as a straight man would never be tempted,” Throckmorton said.
Although Throckmorton had disagreements with parts of the paper, he was overall pleased with it. In fact, he said some of the paper’s conclusions are what conservatives have been urging the APA to conclude for two-plus years. He said conservatives have long urged the APA to respect “religious clients’ right to define themselves the way they want to.” Such patients, he said, come in all forms.
“We’re talking about people who are married and happily married and who stay married,” he told Baptist Press. “We’re talking about deacons in churches. They feel that their faith is more vital to them. Instead of saying no to their faith they’re going to say no to their sexual attractions.”
The paper, he said, affirms self-determination, a psychological term meaning that the patient determines their path.
The report was released days before psychologists Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse release their next set of data in a longitudinal study that is following people who are trying to change. In the last set of data from 2007, 38 percent of the subjects followed in the study said they had successfully left homosexuality, while an additional 29 percent said they had had only modest successes but were committed to keep trying. That data was published in a book, “Ex-Gays?” Their newest data is set to be released online this weekend.
Chambers said the debate over whether homosexuals can change is at the heart of Christian theology and practice.
“If this isn’t possible, then nothing else with regards to addition or life-dominating issues is possible,” he said.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.