Can Homosexuals Change?

By Dr. J.D. Robertson Posted: Thu. Feb 1st 1996
Dr. Robertson compares the approaches and expectations regarding the possibility of change in homosexual behavior from both the secular and Christian perspective.

Introduction

Perhaps the best way to approach the question posed by this chapter would be to revisit an old joke concerning psychologists. Get ready, here it comes:

Comic: "How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
Response: "I don't know, how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
Comic: "Only one - provided the lightbulb wants to be changed! "

Although the joke may leave a bit to be desired as far as humor, it does illustrate the situation helping professionals face with any person and problem. Homosexuality is no different. The ability to change involves the individual's desire to change, willingness to take responsibility for change, and commitment to making the change no matter how long it takes. Many look for magic - "Poof! Your problem is solved!" However, such ingrained thoughts, behaviors, and feelings took years to develop and will not magically disappear through psychological "hocus-pocus."

The problem with discussing the potential for changing homosexuality involves expectations. Does the homosexual believe change is possible? Does the professional believe change is possible or even desirable? How is change defined?

Current Views

Chandler Burr provides historical study of homosexuality research and treatments for change. According to Burr, the term "homosexuality" was first used in an 1869 pamphlet published in Leipzig, Germany. Homosexuality has been observed and reported throughout history, however, this marked the first time there was a label involved. For example, "same-sex sex" was regarded as a sin and later as a crime but those who committed such acts did not wear a label that distinguished them from others. In the late 19 th century this changed as psychiatry and psychology took the position that homosexuality was a form of mental illness.1

Burr observes that once pathology became the dominant psychiatric and psychological view, there were several treatments advanced as remedies for the condition. A 1992 documentary, entitled "Changing Our Minds" by psychologist James Harrison, reports cases of hysterectomies and estrogen injections for females, lobotomies, electric shock, castration, and aversion therapy as some of the more extreme prescriptions. However, attempts to show pathology associated with homosexuality typically failed. The Kinsey studies of the 1940's found homosexuality to be highly resistant to change. In the 1950's Evelyn Hooker conducted a study which resulted in her conclusion that homosexuality could not be defined as pathology. Finally, in 1973, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. 2 Burr summarizes the current scientific view: "Today's psychiatrists and psychologists, with very few exceptions, do not try to change sexual orientation, and those aspiring to work in the fields of psychiatry and psychology are now trained not to regard homosexuality as a disease."3

There are professionals who maintain the pathological view of homosexuality changed for less than empirical reasons. It must be noted that some believe homosexuality was removed from the DSM not because of scientific evidence, but because of political pressure brought by homosexual activists. In a review of the DSM, Kutchins and Kirk said, "In 1973, protests by guy activists induced APA members to vote for the elimination of homosexuality as a diagnosis. However justified, this response seemed to substantiate complaints that their decisions were influenced by political pressure." 4 Zustiak5 relates the series of events that Kutchins and Kirk mention:

A little known fact is that while the deletion of homosexuality from the DSM III did take place in response to a majority vote of the APA, later surveys showed that the majority of the APA membership viewed homosexuality as pathological, in spite of the vote! Four years after the vote, a survey found that 69 percent of psychiatrists believed that homosexuality "usually represents a pathological adaptation." 6
If the majority still saw homosexuality as a pathological adaptation then how did the change pass? An investigation showed that the vote was taken under political pressure and under explicit threats from the gay rights establishment to continue disruptive demonstrations at APA conventions and impede research if the vote didn't pass.
Even at the very convention where the vote was taken a large voice of protest went up from specialists in the field of homosexuality. These protests resulted in a referendum vote by the entire APA body. Shortly before the ballots were due, a letter was sent out by the officers of APA urging the members to let the decision stand. It was only later that it was learned that the letter was paid for by the National Gay Task Force. 7
It is important to know that this change in the APA Diagnostic Manual did not come about as a result of any discoveries or new theories resulting from scientific research, but was merely the result of political terrorism. This robs the decision of its credibility and force.

Regardless of whether homosexuality should or should not be listed as pathological, the fact remains that it is not so listed. Whereas professionals were once taught homosexuality was pathological, currently they receive training where homosexuality is viewed as acceptable and within the normal range of human sexuality. Usually the focus of therapy would center on how comfortable a homosexual client was with his or her orientation, rather than attempting to change the orientation. Today a person concerned about homosexual issues might seek professional assistance to overcome the sexual orientation and instead be questioned concerning why he or she was so concerned with the same-sex orientation. If the individual was not firm in the goal of the therapeutic process, it might change to helping him or her reconcile self-image and the homosexual orientation. In fact, when homosexuality and pathology are discussed, it is just as likely that heterosexual people in the client's social network will be considered pathological (homophobic) by helping professionals.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there are core beliefs that color perceptions of homosexuality and scientists and therapists are not immune. If from the late 1800's through the 1970's there was an inappropriate scientific predisposition to find homosexuality to be pathological, then the reverse may be true today. The assumption that homosexuality is not pathological and that there are biological roots may just as easily influence what questions are formed, which influences the hypotheses researched, and the discoveries that are made, and in turn which findings are written about, and finally the research findings editors choose to publish. Researchers, educators, and practitioners strive for objectivity, yet must be aware of their biases.

Carolyn Dillon, co-chair of clinical practice at Boston University School of Social Work, demonstrates the agenda professionals can bring to an issue. She asserts that in the 1970's and 1980's researchers sought to determine which strategies would be helpful to homosexuals in oppressive conditions and today professionals can assist in the "psychological liberation and empowerment" of homosexuals. Her view is, "The professional response to gay clients should involve education as well as therapy; it should be political as well as psychological." 8

Chandler Burr provides keen insight into the potential problem of bias by allowing that many researchers had a personal stake in their research findings. "Some of those involved in the research are motivated not only by scientific but also by personal concerns. Many of the scientists who have been studying homosexuality are gay, as am I." 9 Burr's recognition of values and potential biases is a step toward objectivity.

Everyone benefits from an honest evaluation of core beliefs. This book has outlined the biases and assumptions we as authors bring to this material. Understanding one's bias and admitting it brings about the possibility for a sincere search for truth. Currently, most psychological professionals would assume that homosexual tendencies are essentially innate and the focus of therapy with homosexuals would be to assist in the healthy acceptance, internalization, and incorporation of the homosexual identity. The problem would not be considered to be homosexuality, but how one feels about one's homosexuality. This view expresses a certain set of assumptions and reflects a particular worldview. However, there are some who hold a different set of assumptions concerning homosexuality and approach the issue from a different perspective. One of these different perspectives involves Christian practitioners and the Christian worldview.

Christian View

Again, we as authors have already taken a clear position on the morality of homosexual behavior based on the core assumptions outlined earlier. Our core assumptions do not diminish the desire to understand the dynamics of homosexuality or our commitment to minister to homosexuals in the name of Jesus. Yet in many cases Christian values put professionals at odds with certain psychological schools of thought, and not just concerning homosexuality.

For example, consider a man who seeks out a professional because of anxiety and guilt. The professional explores this problem with the client in order to find the origins of his negative emotions. At first, the man is hesitant and hedges, but finally he relates his involvement in an extramarital sexual relationship with a woman. The client finds the affair to be irresistible and laced with excitement. Yet at the same time, he can hardly look his wife and children in the eyes. He is petrified they will discover his secret activities, yet he does not want to end the extramarital relationship. The professional is then confronted with what must be done to address the man's anxiety and guilt.

Although no one can predict the exact course each and every professional would take, there are essentially two alternatives representing the extremes and each can remedy the man's negative feelings. Although both tacks are successful they end in vastly differing situations and represent opposing world views and core assumptions.

One view involves changing the man's values. The anxiety and guilt originates in the man's belief that he is engaging in wrong behavior. His conscience is possibly viewed as too strict and punitive, hence the prescription is to relax the man's rigid and stifling moral code. He might be questioned why he believed the extramarital relationship was wrong. Discussion could cover whether the relationship was consenting and mutually beneficial. Also questions of whether the relationship was hurting his marriage or children might be reviewed. If the determination was made that no one was hurt by the relationship, the man might actually begin to feel differently and the anxiety and guilt would possibly disappear. At termination of the helping relationship, the man feels better; however, he still is involved in an extramarital relationship and his family does not know his secret.

A second view involves changing the man's behavior. Because the anxiety and guilt originates in the man's belief that the relationship was wrong, then the negative emotions will likely disappear by quitting the wrong behavior. Here the assumption is that the client experiences negative emotions because he is behaving inconsistently with his values and the prescription is to behave consistently with his values. At termination of the counseling relationship, the man feels better because he has ended the affair, hopefully confessed the secret to his family, and is focused on restoring trust in his family life.

Although this hypothetical situation is obviously broad and simplistic, it does demonstrate the two very different approaches to a problem based on core assumptions. Both therapists can be concerned, empathic, skilled, and successful in assisting the client to overcome the present problem. Yet they succeed through very different approaches with very different resulting situations.

Christian professionals must be concerned, empathic, and skilled, yet recognize their core beliefs put them in a specific context. Hence the Christian view works to balance the "grace" of interpersonal compassion and ministry, and the "truth" of the scriptural stand on homosexuality.

Zustiak illustrates the dilemma well:

As strongly as we want to take a stand against the practice of homosexuality, we must also strongly take a stand against our unwillingness to reach out and evangelize, counsel, love and convert those struggling with homosexuality.
Two new Christians approached a pastor for help with homosexual issues. They were told by this pastor, "Commit suicide! God understands suicide better than homosexuality." One jumped off Seattle's George Washington Bridge, the other is drinking himself to death. 10
It is not possible for the church to pray, "Oh, God, heal that person, but please don't involve me." The homosexual can change. It takes place through the love and power of Jesus Christ. It will not happen overnight. It takes patience and great commitment on the part of the church. But it does happen. 11

Fundamentally most evangelical Christian professionals would maintain that even if we cannot be certain of its causes, homosexual behavior is wrong, and it can be changed. Dr. David Seamands suggests that change involves commitment and struggle. The place to start is identifying what constitutes change in the mind of the person who wants change. Seamands believes it may be impossible for some people to totally change the homosexual attraction or tendency, but is absolutely convinced homosexual behavior can be changed. Factors that influence the potential for change include the age of the individual, the extent of the person's involvement in homosexual behavior or lifestyle, and his or her motivation for change. Change may not mean heterosexuality for every person who seeks assistance with same-sex struggles, it may mean celibacy. Dr. Seamands' audiotape provides some general guidelines for consideration. There is a need to analyze the possible underlying reasons for developing the homosexual orientation, as well as honestly coming to grips with God's view of homosexual behavior and lusts. Also attempt to consider what "payoffs" come with the homosexual orientation. Usually when we have developed deeply ingrained patterns of behavior or attitudes and wish to change, we have to address the needs which are being met by those activities or beliefs. The brakes must be applied to behavior with a determination to stop all homosexual activities and rid oneself of all reminders of it. Finally, the need for developing a "plan of renewal" is discussed. The components of the plan involve: 1. activities centering on Christian growth, such as praying, Bible reading, reading Christian literature, attending church, becoming involved in Christian fellowship, ministering to others, and honestly evaluating oneself; 2. activities of self-discipline, such as exercising, sleeping and eating properly, coping appropriately with life stressors, and choosing to actively change lifestyles; 3. developing a relationship with a mentor or role model who has spiritual maturity, is trustworthy and deserving respect; 4. establishing friendships and developing deeper relationships with people of the opposite sex; 5. setting appropriate goals in counsel with one's mentor, developing plans for attaining goals, realistically adjusting goals, and working to realize goals.

Dr. Jay Adams proposes his response when helping homosexuals who wish to change. The place to begin according to Adams involves the acceptance of two truths: First, acknowledge homosexuality as sin; and second, realize that Jesus Christ holds the keys to lasting change. Once those two truths are understood, Adams offers practical guidelines forchange. The person must break off homosexual relationships and associations. Also places which are associated with the homosexual lifestyle or contacts should be avoided. Another component involves the recognition of the dominating place homosexuality holds in one's life. He says that homosexuals often learn to lie as a result of the "double" life they sometimes lead. Hence one concern is to be vigilant for truth and sensitive to the temptation of taking liberties with the truth. This process involves what Adams terms "total structuring" which means "looking at the problem in relationship to all areas of life." 12 Just as Christians view their faith as the cardinal trait of their identity and as such, permeating all areas of their lives, so too, homosexuals tend to view their same-sex orientation as the cardinal trait of their lives, hence all areas of life should be examined for its effects. Dr. Adams summarizes by saying:

There is hope for the homosexual. That hope, then, lies in the following

  1. Christian conversion;
  2. An acknowledgement and confession of the sin of homosexuality leading to forgiveness;
  3. Fruits appropriate to repentance, such as
    1. Abandonment of homosexual practices and associates (I Corinthians 15:33);
    2. Rescheduling of activities, etc.;
    3. Restructuring of the whole life according to biblical principles by the power of Christ's Spirit;
    4. Less emphasis upon sexual experience;
  4. Unless God gives the gift of continence, seeking to learn and manifest a life of love by giving oneself to his spouse within the bounds of heterosexual marriage.13

Dr. Gary Collins advises, "The place to begin counseling is with your own attitudes . ..Jesus loved sinners and those who were tempted to sin." 14 Collins pleads for an empathic understanding of the struggle many homosexuals endure. He agrees with Richard Foster who addresses the difficulties involved in balancing grace and truth, "Because this issue has wounded so many people, the first word that needs to be spoken is one of compassion and healing . . . . All who are caught in the cultural and ecclesiastical chaos over homosexuality need our compassion and understanding.'15 Collins then squarely confronts the issue of change:

One idea that must change is the myth that homosexuality is a disease that cannot be cured. Homosexuality is not a disease; it is a tendency that often but not always leads to habitual fantasies or acts of homoerotic behavior. If homosexuality is primarily a learned condition, as the evidence suggests, then it can be unlearned. If homosexual behavior is sinful, as the Bible teaches, then forgiveness is available and so is divine hetp that can keep a homosexually oriented person from sexual sin.
Change is never easy for homosexuals and their counselors. The counselee dropout rate is high, and enthusiastic reports from ex-gay ministries often aPpear to be overly optimistic. Nevertheless, change (even to heterosexual tendencies and behavior) is possible, especially when some of the following are present (the more that are present, the better the chance for change):
  • The counselee honestly faces his or her homosexuality.
  • The counselee has a strong desire to change.
  • The counselee is willing to break contact with homosexual companions who tempt the counselee into homosexual behavior.
  • There is a willingness to avoid drugs and alcohol since these leave one more vulnerable to temptation.
  • The counselee is able to build a close nonsexual intimate relationship with the counselor or other same-sex person.
  • The counselee experiences acceptance and love apart from homosexual friends and contacts.
  • The counselee is under thirty-five and/or is not deeply involved in homosexual attachments to others.
  • The counselee has a desire to avoid sin and to commit his or her life and problems to the Lordship ofJesus Christ.16

Conclusion

The primary concern from a Christian perspective is balancing grace and truth. This cardinal concern is not just for serving the brother or sister grappling with problems related to homosexuality, it is the core tension in the Christian's approach to the world. Sinful behaviors and attitudes must be separated from people who are sinners. People who are sinners need love while sins must be confronted. Christians are committed to God's unyielding truth, expressed in God's unconditional love. Christians are absolutely called to minister with grace, yet they are also called to be completely faithful to God's absolute truth. For dealing with homosexuality, this means Christians must oppose the proliferation of the gay rights movement's social and political agendas because of the call of God's truth, yet remember each individual who faces same-sex orientations and practices remains a child of God who deserves the ministry of God's grace.The popular television and radio host, Rush Limbaugh, asserts that people must have the courage to face the truth. When there is an open, genuine, and courageous examination of the truths involved in homosexuality, the effects are sobering:

  1. Homosexual behavior is wrong according to God's Word.
  2. We are uncertain of its causes; it is probably a combination of factors for each homosexual.
  3. Homosexual behavior puts people at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS.
  4. According to a June 1993 television news report, AIDS is becoming the leading cause of death in major cities among young adult males.
  5. AIDS is a horribly devastating disease. One testimony is Silver Lake Life, a documentary airing on PBS in June of 1993, chronicling the relationship of a same-sex couple and the progression of AIDS from onset to death, as well as its aftermath for those who survived the victim's death.
  6. According to one television news report inJune 1993' the average life expectancy for homosexual males is now 42, while life expectancy for homosexual females is presently 45, a little over half the life expectancy of heterosexual males and females.
  7. According to June 1993 newspaPer reports of the European meeting of leading AIDS researchers, there are no likely cures for AIDS on the immediate horizon, despite the large sums of funding for research.
  8. AIDS is spread primarily through behavior and the only sure prevention has to do with avoiding behavior that puts one at risk.
  9. Although many researchers and mental health professionals believe the origins of homosexuality are innate and there is no need for change, many Christian professionals maintain homosexuality is wrong and change is possible regardless of its origins. These Christian practitioners are called to ministries of God's grace to the person, yet dedication to the truths of God concerning homosexuality.
  10. God offers immediate mercy, real restoration, and ultimate hope for those who seek Him.

Sources

  1. Chandler Burr, p. 48.
  2. Ibid., pp. 48-49.
  3. Ibid., p. 49.
  4. "The Future of DSM: Scientific and Professional Issues," The Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter, September 1988, p. 4.
  5. "Hope and Healing for the Homosexual," The Christian Standard, February 14, 1993, pp. 8-9.
  6. Jones and Workman, "Homosexuality: The Behavioral Sciences and the Church,". Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 1989, p.274.
  7. Houck, "Neglected by Mission: The Homosexual Person," Urban Mission,May 1989, p. 14.
  8. "Working with Lesbian and Gay Clients," The Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 1993, p. 4.
  9. Burr, p. 48.
  10. Houck, p. 15.
  11. Ibid., p. 9.
  12. Joy Adams, p. 410.
  13. Ibid., pp. 411-412.
  14. Collins, p.287.
  15. Ibid., p. 280.
  16. Ibid., p. 288.