Written by Andy Lang
Can a person's sexual orientation be changed?
This question received national attention on June 17 when James T. Draper Jr. of LifeWay Ministries told the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, that "thousands of men and women" have been "freed from homosexuality by the power of God." Draper called upon Southern Baptist churches to increase their support of "transformation ministries."
But, also in June, Jeremy Marks—a founder of the United Kingdom's first ex-gay counseling network known as ÒCourageÓ—was touring the United States, now acknowledging that the idea that homosexuals can be transformed into heterosexuals was not only realistically impossible, but psychologically and spiritually damaging. In 2001, Marks announced a Ònew directionÓ for his London-based evangelical ministry: No longer would they seek to manipulate a person's sexual orientation, but they would help persons to accept their God-given nature.
"After 13 years of counseling, we failed to change a single homosexual," Marks says. "Gays can choose whether or not to follow Christ, but they cannot choose their sexual orientation."
Courage's reversal marked the first time that an entire ministry related to Exodus International—the worldwide umbrella network of ex-gay ministries—had admitted what psychologists have been saying for years: Homosexuality is not a mental illness, and therapies that seek to ÒcureÓ homosexuality are unethical. On this topic, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of Social Workers, among others, agree.
In repudiating the ex-gay movement, Marks was following in the footsteps of Exodus International's cofounders, Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, who shocked a gathering of conservative UCC members at the 12th General Synod in 1979 in Indianapolis, when they announced, for the first time publicly, that they no longer could support the anti-gay mission of Exodus. "We had decided on the way over (to General Synod) that we could no longer present ourselves as ex-gay and we could no longer lead these types of (exgay) seminars," said Bussee in the video documentary "One Nation Under God" that explores the ex-gay movement.
Still, proponents of the transformation or ex-gay viewpoint argue that sexual orientation is not a fixed or permanent condition, but a learned behavior that can be unlearned through prayer, counseling and support. A small number of professional counselors insist that homosexuals are defective heterosexuals who can be cured through ÒreparativeÓ or ÒrestorativeÓ therapy.
Other Christian counselors argue that transformation ministries are a death trap for many homosexuals—perpetuating feelings of guilt and selfhatred that can impair relationships and result in suicide.
"I have to pick up the pieces afterwards," says the Rev. Leanne Tigert, a licensed therapist and UCC minister in Concord, N.H.
Some reparative therapists use techniques that induce feelings of physical revulsion when their patients feel an attraction to a person of the same sex, Tigert says. One patient described sessions with a counselor who used "penile electrodes" to generate pain when the patient was shown photographs of naked men.
"These are the most difficult cases I've had to treat," says Tigert. "They want so badly to be spiritually and sexually whole, but are completely divided against themselves. They can't change and they can't accept who they are."
"Homosexuals who have survived reparative therapy cannot easily regain trust in the church", Tigert says. But a new relationship with Christ in an Open and Affirming congregation can be a transforming experience. "One worship service can be worth 10 years of therapy", says Tiggert. "Church was always home for them. When they find a community where they are welcomed and wanted for who they are, a lifetime of despair can begin to heal."