Does Living Out support 'gay cure' or 'conversion therapy'?

By Sean Doherty

No, we don't. Some gay or same-sex attracted people will find professional, responsible counselling or psychotherapy helpful for a whole host of other reasons - just as many straight people do. But this isn't because they're gay or same-sex attracted!

This post will unpack some of our concerns with the idea of therapy for homosexuality, and then I will explore what we do support.

Why we do not support the idea of 'gay cure'

1) Homosexuality is not an illness. But using the language of 'cure' makes it sound like it is, which could be very damaging to vulnerable people (such as a young person coming to terms with their sexuality), making them feel ashamed of who they are at a very deep and fundamental level, and perhaps in some cases even contributing to suicidal feelings. Thankfully, we are not aware of any organisations in the UK which do support the idea of a ‘gay cure’. Our belief is that all of us have fallen sexual desires (whether heterosexual or homosexual), and that what we need isn’t more heterosexuality or less homosexuality, but the holiness found in Jesus Christ.

2) Attempting to change someone's sexual orientation assumes that being gay is somehow more problematic than being straight. We believe that heterosexuality as we encounter it in this world is just as fallen as homosexuality. If a person changes from lustful desire towards people of the same sex to lustful desire towards people of the opposite sex, that is in no sense an improvement. So, attempts to change sexual orientation could be a distraction from the real goal, which is sexual purity expressed either in fulfilled marriage or in fulfilled singleness. We do not believe that marriage is a preferable outcome to singleness,

We do not believe that marriage is a preferable outcome to singleness 

and indeed in 1 Corinthians 7:32-38, St Paul teaches that singleness is in some ways 'better' than marriage.

3) The idea that anyone can be rid of sexual temptation is overoptimistic, and it sets people up for failure and guilt. We will all continue to experience temptation until Jesus returns. But the glorious truth that we see in the gospels (Matthew 4 and Luke 4) is that Jesus was himself "in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). Temptation itself is not sin (and of course, I might add, sexual feelings and sexual temptation aren’t simply the same thing – but exploring the difference would take another post). Once again, the implication is that homosexual orientation is problematic in itself, adding to the possibility that people will experience shame and guilt concerning an orientation which they have not chosen and which is simply part of who they are.

4) The focus on changing a person’s sexual desires in order ultimately to change their sexual identity is the wrong way round. We believe it is essential to help people accept themselves as they are, just as God accepts us as we are.

We believe it is essential to help people accept themselves as they are, just as God accepts us as we are.

This will include accepting our sexual orientation, although it will also include accepting our God-given sexual identity as female or male. In my case, I accepted my same-sex orientation and did not seek to deny or repress it. However, over time, as I also accepted that God had made me male, I did experience some change in my sexual feelings and fell in love with and married a woman. But this did not happen through therapy. Indeed, I have never had any kind of counselling or therapy, still less conversion or reparative therapy. (You can read more about my own journey here.)

5) Some approaches to attempting to change sexual orientation are based on a particular diagnosis of what causes homosexuality which we do not believe is sustained by evidence (as Ed Shaw explains here). This has even led some to speak of doing what one can to 'prevent' homosexuality - an approach pretty much guaranteed to add to the sense of shame felt by many gay or same-sex attracted people and the guilt felt by some of their parents (see my article for parents here). What about all the people (such as myself) whose experience does not fit these supposed patterns? Living Out therefore does not believe that sexual orientation can be traced to particular causes in such a simplistic way. This view is supported by this recent review of academic studies of the causes of sexual orientation. It concludes that whatever causes sexual orientation is highly complicated and may vary from person to person.

6) There is relatively little evidence either way as to whether efforts to change someone’s sexuality are effective. It's true that some people who attempt to change do experience a change in their sexual feelings (just as some straight people become gay in later life). But, as Peter Ould explains in this article, given that sexuality is more fluid for some people than others, in the absence of comparison with a ‘control’ group, it is impossible to prove what caused the change, or whether those individuals would have experienced some change in their orientation anyway.

Responsible alternatives

I hope this post has made it clear that Living Out opposes the idea of a 'gay cure'. Responsible counselling or psychotherapy may be helpful for all sorts of other reasons. But a number of things need to be borne in mind.

1) If gay or same-sex attracted people do need counselling or psychotherapy, it isn't because they are gay or same-sex attracted.

2) It should go without saying that nobody, least of all vulnerable people or those under the age of 18, should be pressurised, or still less forced, to have any kind of counselling or psychotherapy. It should always be freely chosen, and people considering it should be given adequate information so that they can make an informed choice about it.

3) The goal of therapy should be wholeness in general, rather than orientation change. Against popular misconceptions, the most substantial study so far of attempts to change sexual orientation found no evidence that such attempts were harmful. Indeed, it found that it benefitted some participants whose sexual orientation experienced no change.[1] Mark Yarhouse, part of the team who conducted that study found that most of the positive benefits reported by people in his research ‘were not about a dramatic change in sexual orientation. Rather, participants tended to emphasise their relationship with God, their experience of God’s love and acceptance, and spiritual growth.’[2] He therefore believes that therapy is most helpful when the focus is not on changing one particular part of the person’s feelings but on assisting them towards greater emotional and spiritual wholeness in general. 

therapy is most helpful when the focus is not on changing one particular part of the person’s feelings but on assisting them towards greater emotional and spiritual wholeness in general

integrating one's faith and one's sexuality is an important part of this - but it can only ever be a part.

Conclusion

We believe that attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation sends a number of potentially damaging messages.

We believe that attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation sends a number of potentially damaging messages

It sets people up for guilt and failure, and can be a distraction from more worthwhile goals. Of course, people of all sexual orientations may benefit from counselling and psychotherapy for all sorts of other reasons. Lots of us carry emotional baggage. Gay or same-sex attracted people are no different in this respect. But our sexual orientation is not a sign that we need counselling more than anyone else. We therefore believe that counselling or psychotherapy will be helpful when it aims at helping people towards self-acceptance and good psychological and emotional health in general, and not on changing someone’s sexual orientation. We hope that this makes it clear that Living Out does not support the idea of counselling or psychotherapy which has that goal.


FURTHER READING

From Living Out

Ed Shaw, Why Are Some People Same-Sex Attracted? 

Peter Ould, Can Your Sexuality Change? 

Others who we feel offer a helpful perspectives on this issue

Rosaria Butterfield, 'You Are What and How You Read'

Heath Lambert, 'What's Wrong with Reparative Therapy?

Russell Moore video on Reparative Therapy


[1]The best study is Stanton Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse, Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007).

[2]Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), p.94.