There have been a hundred different post ideas that I’ve been mulling over for the last several weeks, particularly since the recent furor over Josh Weed’s and Steven Frei’s participation in this year’s Circling the Wagons conference and the perception of what or who they represent (and don’t represent), what they believe (and don’t believe), etc.
Two issues seem to have been at the heart of that furor. One had to do with some comments by Steven Frei about not being convinced that therapeutic efforts, while they can be extremely helpful for a lot of things, are all that effective in changing sexual orientation. The other issue that has come up in some circles has to do with some perceived dissonance between North Star’s official stance on therapeutic approaches to same-sex attraction (which is emphatically neutral, with the caveat that we support “all efforts consistent with the gospel that help individuals live in more full harmony with their covenants and attain greater peace, fulfillment, and sense of individual worth”) and a culture within the community that is perceived as being implicitly supportive of specific therapeutic approaches given that many in the community, including several of our leadership, have participated in and spoken encouragingly of experiential weekends like Journey Into Manhood—I am one of these, and unapologetically so.
Reaffirming North Star’s Stance
In an attempt to minimize misconceptions about where we stand as an organization, Tyler Moore addressed both of these issues recently in his turn at our monthly Message from the Directors, so I don’t want to speak much to North Star’s official stance. I do want to say, though, that North Star’s position is to unreservedly make space for anyone who believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ and desires to live within the framework of Church teachings, regardless of where they come out on the cause or mutability of same-sex sexuality or whether they have interest in engaging therapeutic resources—thus, holding space for them to follow any of a variety of approaches to same-sex orientation that still maintain fidelity to the core tenants of the faith, including teachings around the appropriate bounds of sexual expression taught in unanimity by those we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators.
In this sense—holding faith in and adherence to the gospel and Church standards as the exclusive organizing principle of our community and approach—North Star has, since its inception, sought to maintain a moderate and “big tent” approach. We are a community, not a dissemination of a unique “North Star” dogma, and those in our community approach their experience with same-sex attraction in a variety of ways. We believe there is no single right way to respond to homosexual feelings, even within the realm of strict fidelity to Church teachings.
Dis-illusionment and My Want for Truth
Now, that is not to say that individuals within the community do not have passionately held—and often disparate—opinions about a variety of issues, including etiology or fluidity of sexuality or the benefits (or lack thereof) of various therapeutic efforts. And anyone who knows me personally knows that that is certainly true of me. So, while I want to make it definitely clear that I do not speak for North Star as an organization in what I say here in this series of posts, I do want to share some thoughts I’ve had on the topic of “reparative therapy” and other sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE).
The title of my post was inspired by a statement in one of my all-time favorite addresses, titled “‘Believest Thou?’: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience,” by Wendy Ulrich, a psychologist and one of my favorite thinkers. In that talk she made the following observation:
“I remember a discussion about apostasy in a Relief Society class in which someone commented that one reason people leave the church is because they become disillusioned, and that therefore we need to be careful not to become disillusioned. But it seems to me that disillusionment is a very good thing. I do not want to live a life based on illusions, and being disillusioned is very valuable to me. I suspect that I have many illusions, many expectations and beliefs that are not well-founded and that I am well-served to be rid of. My experience is that the hardest illusions for me to get rid of are illusions about control in a relatively dangerous world, and sometimes my religion is more like a set of superstitions to ward off the boogie man than a set of principles for coming to know God. I’m grateful, too, for God winking at such ignorance in the words of Paul [see Acts 17:30], but I pray that He will, like a sensitive therapist, help me to gradually put down my defenses and illusions to build a more grounded and honest trust in Him despite my challenges and losses, not just in hopes of sidestepping them.”
I approach my thoughts here in the same spirit. My heart’s desire is only for truth, to have illusion stripped away. I desire to be continually dis-illusioned—to open myself up to truth, that the Spirit may speak to me “of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13). I love the sentiment of Joseph Smith. “All I want,” he said, “is to get the simple, naked truth, and the whole truth.” On another occasion, he said that “one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” “Have the Presbyterians any truth?” he asked. “Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.'” Whether a truth comes from a reparative therapist or a queer theorist, a Presbyterian or a prophet of the Restoration, I want it—the simple, naked truth, and the whole truth.
Exploring the Issue of Reorientation
There’s enough to explore around this that I’ll have to break it up into two or three posts, but I want to at least touch briefly on a couple things here. Again, given some of the furor of weeks past, as well as my participation this last weekend with Josh Weed, Laurie Campbell (aka, Erin Eldridge), David Matheson, Jeff Robinson, and other LDS therapists and others who have personal experience with homosexuality on a panel sponsored by the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP) and the Foundation for Attraction Research (FAR), titled “Same-Sex Attraction: Reconciling Faith and Feelings,” I have some thoughts specifically on the topic of “reparative therapy” and “sexual (re)orientation” that keep coming to mind.
In moving forward I want to highlight the fact that I don’t feel like I have a dog in the “merits of reparative therapy” or “can/can’t change” fight. While I certainly believe individuals have the right to seek out reparative therapy or other therapeutic modalities to address distressing same-sex sexual attractions and emotional attachments, and that many people have benefited from such therapeutic intervention (and that the “harm”/”damaging” factor is sensationalized and over-hyped), I simply don’t feel any loyalty to reparative therapy as a specific modality or any inherent need to defend its merits. That said, I have mixed feelings because as I hear people say incredibly stupid and ill-informed things about it who have little knowledge and lots of self-righteous zeal, I do feel a some desire to stick up for the underdog against mis-informed and bullying attack. The way popular culture is shoring up against it is almost eerily fascist. Even so, I agree that certain criticism are valid, but would suggest that most of the valid criticisms are really of issues that get conflated with reparative therapy as opposed to reparative therapy interventions themselves. But more on that later.
My personal experience is minimal. I had a good and helpful therapist for a couple of years off and on during my undergraduate years at BYU, he wasn’t a reparative therapist and I didn’t feel any shift in my sexual or romantic attractions toward other men. The resolution I experienced in the conflict between my faith and my sexuality was ultimately spiritual and as a result of a series of sacred experiences with God. When I wrote my part of In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction, a book I coauthored with Fred and Marilyn Matis, it was largely a spiritual memoir around how I came to experience a sense of purpose and peace—not how I changed my sexual orientation. In fact, one of the criticisms by some LDS psychotherapists was that it “perpetuates the innate-immutability argument” (a claim which I judge to be entirely erroneous).
Following some of the criticisms of In Quiet Desperation, I spoke with a trusted mentor about the nature of that criticism, and his response was something to the effect that people on various sides of this issue have been so invested for so long in whether or not people can change their sexual orientation, with deeply held values and opinions and positions and perceived consequences of the outcome of that debate, that to take a step out of that argument entirely to say that whether or not someone can change their sexual orientation, all people can experience peace and comfort and healing in the atoning power and redeeming love of Jesus Christ—and that all people are capable of exercising their agency to make and keep covenants of chastity and sexual restraint within the bounds the Lord has set via His prophetic witnesses—is insufficient and unacceptable. There seems to be one argument to be having, with the “right” response to sexuality being based on outcomes of what current scientific evidence (or politically correct professional propositions, whichever the case may be)—something incredibly messy in the “soft” or psychological and social sciences—concludes.
While I’ve engaged various therapeutic efforts since experiencing spiritual resolution between my faith and my sexuality—efforts which inadvertently led to a qualitative shift in my experience of my sexuality (something I had previously come to believe wasn’t possible)—I have never participated in “reparative” or any other therapy with the intent to alter my sexual orientation. All therapeutic efforts I’ve engaged in have been exclusively with the intent of personal growth into a deeper state of self-awareness and acceptance and healing of shame and pain and fragmentation I’ve experienced in my life.
Acknowledging Biases and Inconsistencies
In a closing thought for this particular post, through all that I’ve experienced personally and through all I’ve seen in working personally and speaking at length with hundreds and hundreds of men and women, there is a lot of illusion and delusion out there when it comes to understanding issues around sexual orientation and other issues that are often conflated with it (addiction, attachment injury/need, emotional intimacy, genderedness, etc). There is too much misinformed, simplistic thinking about sexuality in general, and particularly with regard to an issue like homosexuality that is so prone to religious and social politicism.
We all have our blind spots and are subject to pop cultural perceptions, and may be prone to not really examine issues for ourselves. And even genuinely honest, empathic and thinking people who engage these issues with greater depth can come to different conclusions based on the same evidence. Often, because there simply isn’t enough solid evidence available, individuals or groups create generally cogent narratives/theories that may be genuinely rational given the evidence (or lack thereof) but which are similarly informed by a heavy dose of anecdotal experience and personal bias. I think it’s also true that there are not enough of the right questions being asked, and there’s not enough examining and acknowledging of personal bias. For example, Jack and Judith Balswick, Christian scholars of sexual development, noted in their book Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach, that people’s views on sexuality and gender are generally informed by the lenses through which they approach it:
“People holding a more conservative theological position tend to emphasize biological factors to explain male/female gender differences but focus on environmental factors when it comes to explanations about homosexuality. Persons with liberal theologies tend to do just the opposite. They deemphasize genetic explanations for gender differences but embrace genetic explanations regarding homosexual orientation” (p. 20).
I’ve noticed this trend, though not necessarily just with those conservative or liberal theological positions; I would include socio-political positions. It’s been interesting to note that some who insist that sexual orientation is genetically or biologically predetermined (something science has not established) and cannot be changed (and that it’s unethical to try) are among those quick champion the efforts of those who would desire to change their sex—something science has shown to be predetermined by genes/biology (granting some chromosomally anomalous exceptions)—via hormone therapies and sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).
So, with all of that as a sort of preface to exploring specific issues in a bit greater depth—including the preponderance of ignorance in the way “reparative therapy” is addressed by it’s critics, it’s common use as a red herring/straw man argument, problems with the Family Acceptance Project’s guide for families of “LGBT youth”, and the claim that reparative therapy or other SOCE are inherently harmful, and more—here we go…