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Study of former homosexuals ‘shows people like me exist’

RALEIGH, N.C. (BP)–Enmeshed in homosexuality before realizing it didn’t line up with biblical teachings, Tim Wilkins’ message of change hasn’t always been popular with people he encounters.

He has sued the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer for religious discrimination, charging it fired him in 1997 after a story appeared in the newspaper about his efforts to free others from homosexuality. The case is set to go to trial June 25.

For Wilkins and others involved in ex-gay ministries, the news of a highly publicized study verifying such change is possible represents a welcome development.

The study, reported May 9 in the nation’s media, was conducted by Columbia University psychiatrist Robert Spitzer and presented May 9 at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

Spitzer found that of 200 people once involved in homosexuality, 66 percent of men and 44 percent of women had achieved “good heterosexual functioning.” Ironically, Spitzer led a move in 1973 to get the APA to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder.

However, a competing study also presented at the APA meeting took the opposite stance. Conducted by private-practice psychologists Ariel Shidlo and Michael Schroeder from New York City, it found that of 202 homosexuals who received therapy to change their sexual orientation, 178 reported the efforts failed.

The New York Times reported that many were harmed by the attempt to change and that only six achieved what Shidlo and Schroeder called “a heterosexual shift.”

But the second study doesn’t bother Wilkins, who acknowledges that overcoming homosexuality is a difficult and time-consuming process. He said the study by Spitzer will help counteract the prevalent message of the last two decades that change is supposed impossible.

“I am very pleased that there is a study that shows people like me exist,” said Wilkins, a survey participant who is married and has a 1-year-old daughter. “This is the most dramatic study, from a strong psychiatrist whose name is synonymous with professionalism.

“This study undermines the pro-gay movement, which says change is not possible. It was conducted by a psychiatrist who approached this study as a skeptic, and is an atheist,” said Wilkins, who leads the Raleigh-based CROSS ministry.

The study is especially encouraging to Southern Baptists, Wilkins reflected, noting that it echoes ideas Baptists have always stood for, that homosexuality is a sin and change is a reality.

Two women who are active in ex-gay ministries in other states believe the news will have a positive impact on their efforts to reach others trapped in the homosexual lifestyle.

“I think it will add some credibility to what we’re trying to say,” said Nancy Brown, co-director of LifeGuard Ministries in Georgetown, Texas. “Because it’s an emotional problem that has been around for so long, it’s not easy to get through. It’s a long process.”

The only complaint Brown had about the survey is wishing it would have included a larger sampling. After many years of helping people leave the homosexual lifestyle, she said she knows far more than 200 people have been set free. They include her husband, Don, who struggled with homosexuality before their marriage. The couple recently celebrated their 25th anniversary and have five children.

Despite their beliefs, they don’t treat homosexuals as outcasts, she said, citing a friendship with a young man who works for the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. But LifeGuard Ministries is concerned that the truth about homosexuality is being hidden or downplayed because of the vocal gay rights community.

“This lifestyle is fraught with self-focus, self-serving attitudes and non-committed relationships,” said Brown, a member of Crestwood Baptist Church in Georgetown. “This gets into depression and risky behaviors that are destructive to everyone involved.”

Another survey participant, Barbara Swallow of Albuquerque, N.M., also wishes the study would have involved a larger number of respondents. A veteran of 10 years in ministry, she knows numerous people who have been healed of homosexual behavior. But most attend church and don’t wish to publicize their past struggles, she said.

“Just because of the controversy I think some people will seek out answers,” said Swallow, co-director of Free Indeed Ministries.

“I believe if church people are advised of the findings, they will begin to take a closer look at how to deal with the issue in the church. There are a lot of people in the church who think [homosexuality] is unchangeable.”

A member of an Episcopal church, she also hopes the news will stir up publicity across her state. Her efforts to attract media attention have gone unnoticed, she said. So have her appeals for financial support from churches.

“They’ll say they will pray for you, but they will not openly support you,” Swallow said. “I don’t know why, but that’s what I find.”

Brown said some people may be scared off by controversy: “Becoming homosexual is a big issue and you’re hounded to death if you don’t agree with [gay activists].”

One example of the attacks against Spitzer’s findings appeared as soon as the news of his study appeared.

The same day he presented his findings at the APA’s annual meeting, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) posted a lengthy statement criticizing his alleged links to political extremists.

Calling the study unscientific and profoundly biased, HRC said the study has little value because it was largely drawn from organizations with anti-gay messages.

Wayne Besen, HRC’s associate director of communications, said Spitzer admitted he had difficulty finding non-religious therapists who could provide clients who had successfully changed orientations.

“Anti-gay activists have long claimed that tens of thousands of people have gone from gay to straight,” Besen said. “But after a review of the most ‘successful’ 200 cases they could provide, it is clear that the failure rate of conversion therapy is extraordinarily high.”

“Twenty-eight years ago when he started off on this,” Brown responded, “he couldn’t do anything wrong,” referring to Spitzer’s success in declassifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. “Now that he’s found differently, he can do nothing right.”

Brown questioned the salvo of criticism aimed at the study. The day after news reports appeared, she heard comments from homosexual activists that it wouldn’t have that much impact.

If it won’t affect them one way or the other, she questioned why homosexual activists are putting up such a stink.

“One of the biggest complaints we hear from the gay community is that people shouldn’t have the right to change,” Brown said. “They say, ‘You’re messing it up for people who like to be gay. If you say people can change, we’ll lose ground.'”

Wilkins noted that if Spitzer had gone into the well-financed and well-organized homosexual community that is seeking to legitimize their lifestyle, his research wouldn’t have been legitimate.

“The study does represent people who have experienced change,” said Wilkins, who attends Richland Creek Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Wake Forest, N.C. “With those who have made the effort and been honest enough to confront their same-sex attractions, they have experienced dramatic change.”

Despite the debate, there is another reality that often gets overlooked, Wilkins pointed out — too many view the opposite of homosexuality as heterosexuality.

The answer to wholeness doesn’t come from getting married, giving birth to children and having a dog in the backyard, he said.

“The true opposite is holiness,” Wilkins said. “Healing is becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. If you measure it by any other means, you’re going to end up with disastrous results.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker