The Persistence of Same Sex Attraction in Latter-day Saints Who Undergo Counseling or Change Therapy
Ron Schow, Ph.D., Professor, College of Health Professions, Idaho State University
For the past several decades we have been intimately involved in attempting to understand the nature of homosexuality, to understand the relationship between homosexuality and the gospel of Christ, and to minister to the needs of Latter-day Saint homosexuals and their families. Our collective experience, though varied, is substantial. We submit the enclosed materials in the hope that they may be helpful in devising strategies that will assist ecclesiastical leaders in ministering to homosexual members, provide direction and support to families of homosexuals, and, especially, provide hope for homosexuals who wish to remain affiliated with the restored gospel and the Church.
The information contained in this report addresses what might be considered the principal question regarding homosexuality: is it an alterable state? There are several ways in which the question can be posed. Is it possible for a gay or lesbian person to become straight? Can same-sex attraction be overcome? Can an individual's sexual orientation change from homosexual to heterosexual?
Based on our experience, within the LDS community it is generally assumed that the answer to these questions is yes. Consider the following book jacket description of a recent publication from Deseret Book Company which purports (anonymously) to be the sexual orientation conversion story of an LDS woman. We are told that the author was able "to throw off the yoke that for so long deprived her of peace and happiness." The book describes "how embracing the gospel can result in a change of heart and a rebirth even from a force as powerful as same-sex attraction" . This same theme of successful change is echoed in several articles published in the Ensign. The basis for such change is both theoretical, that is by appeal to a principle ("When people not only know of the Lord's love but feel it, their lives can be changed in lasting and powerful ways") and also empirical, that is by citation of the life experience of specific persons ("This was the beginning of Jon's journey out of homosexuality and his return home" ; "I cherish the peace I have found in my own life as I have emerged from the bondage that held me captive for so long" ).
The careful reader of these statements will note that the exact nature of the promised change is not specified (what one can reasonably expect from personal struggle, counseling, or therapy is not stated explicitly), but there is a clear implication that change means conversion to a heterosexual state; that is, those Latter-day Saints who successfully follow the correct reparative process will be able to live satisfying heterosexual married lives. Moreover, one is led to believe that the probability of conversion is reasonably high ("Other researchers note treatment success rates that exceed 50 percent, which is similar to the success rates for treating other difficulties" ). One of us attending a recent meeting (October 2002) for ecclesiastical leaders in BYU wards and stakes conducted by the Evergreen organization heard someone ask about the success of recommended reparative therapy programs: "How many persons in this situation can actually change?" The answer given by the presiding authority was, "Hundreds and hundreds."
There is also the suggestion that if homosexuals have enough faith, they can help develop a healthy heterosexual attraction through the atonement of Christ . We are concerned that such a statement is not only a misunderstanding of the atonement but that by encouraging it as a strategy in sexual orientation issues one runs the risk of diminishing rather than increasing faith in Christ.
Such claims need to be interpreted carefully within the context of available data, therapeutic clinical reports and self reports of homosexuals. Certain questions arise about the thousands of homosexual Latter-day Saints who have been seen by LDS Family Services and by other therapists: How many who have had strong same-sex attraction later report they no longer have feelings of such attraction? How many single men and women with such strong attraction report successfully developing heterosexual feelings so they are able to marry? How many married homosexuals with strong same-sex attraction are successful in maintaining a healthy marriage, including mutually rewarding sexual relations with their spouse? In this context it is important to acknowledge bisexuality as a legitimate variation of sexual orientation, describing those persons who are romantically attracted to both males and females. It is also important to note a prevailing consensus that there is a spectrum of sexual attraction from heterosexual to homosexual and that within this spectrum individuals have varying degrees of sexual attraction. In our experience most who are calling for help with this issue are predominantly on the homosexual side of the spectrum and our information relates predominately to these persons (see Table 2). This issue is crucial since there is a tendency of some clinicians and the public in general to treat homosexuality as having a single etiology.
Our report includes data from six separate sources, obtained using quite different methods: the summary report of an active Latter-day Saint therapist in Southern California who has worked with hundreds of homosexual Latter-day Saints, the conclusions of an LDS Family counselor after three decades of counseling with nearly a thousand Latter-day Saint homosexual men and women, the report of a former leader in a church affiliated support group for same sex attracted individuals, a former LDS bishop's twenty year experience in attempting to help homosexual members of his ward and others, a summary of the self reported experience of men and women in a non-church affiliated homosexual LDS support group, and the results of an academic thesis and dissertation which are based on a long term study of the response of homosexual Latter-day Saints to conversion therapy. All but one of these six sources provided narratives which appear as separate reports.
The findings of these reports are quantified in a summary table. Together, the data and reports suggest that same-sex attraction does not diminish significantly, even for those who are actively living the gospel and participating in change therapy programs, and that the ability to establish satisfying heterosexual marriages for homosexual persons (especially men) is very rare.
We are aware of the complexity of this particular problem and of the challenges that face leaders and members alike in finding solutions that reflect the teachings of the gospel and that provide strategies that both strengthen the Church and bless its members. It is our hope that as a Church community we will achieve a more accurate understanding of the nature of homosexuality in our brothers and sisters, and that this will lead us to find more and better resources with which to minister to their needs.
Summary of Data
Shown here in Table 1 are the data from the six sources referred to in the introduction. The table is accompanied by a brief discussion here along with other reports summarizing more details about the outcome data. All of these data are from within the Mormon community among LDS subjects. These findings include many individuals who were counseled within LDS Family Services (LDSFS) and supported through Evergreen (Evergreen is a support group for Mormons who believe they can "transition" out of homosexuality).
Columns (See Table 1.)
1-4. It should be noted that two key LDS therapists initially submitted their findings in 2003 based on many years working with a large number of homosexual clients. One of these was Beverly Shaw, a past president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP). Her data do not show specific numbers, but summarize her impressions based on hundreds of clients. The other LDS counselor probably has more extensive experience (over thirty years) in counseling homosexuals than any other therapist in the Mormon community. The focus of his report was on approximately 400 male clients with whom he worked over an average of 1-3 years (he saw another group of about this size for only one or two sessions). Two hundred of the 400 clients with whom he worked extensively were married. He reported that approximately half of the married clients were able to stay in their marriages (with the quality of the marriage unknown) and only 10% of the single clients were able to marry (again without information as to the success or quality of the marriage). For personal and professional reasons, this therapist requested at the last minute that his report be removed from the enclosed material. We regret that this important report with his insightful analysis of his experience could not be included in this collection, but we provide this explanation and the tabular findings to account for promotional materials which were mailed prior to this decision. The numbers reported by these two therapists are also in line with the report of a former Evergreen member, Russ Gorringe, who was a leader in Evergreen for eight years. Gorringe estimates that only about ten single men out of hundreds who attended Evergreen activities over that period of time eventually married, with no data on the success of those marriages.
5. Robert A. Rees reports on extensive experience as a pastoral counselor during the time he served as Bishop of the Los Angeles Singles Ward and subsequently. Since his work was informal and not conducted within a therapeutic or scientific context, it includes general information rather that specific data. A written report from him is part of the current summary. Bishop Roberts of the San Francisco Singles Ward also has a written report which reinforces Bishop Rees report. The Roberts report was published in Sunstone, Vol 14:1, Feb. 1990, pp. 13-19.
6. Ron Schow provides data on 136 persons surveyed at an Affirmation conference for LDS homosexuals in 1994 wherein 113 respondents reported they had undertaken various efforts to change their orientation. (Affirmation is a support group for gay and lesbian Mormons who generally no longer affiliate with the Church.) The great majority of these individuals reported a continuation of homosexual feelings after an average of 11 years' effort at change. Schow's detailed report on the 136 respondents is noteworthy partly because of the degree of the respondents' previous religious commitment to the Church. Over 70% are returned missionaries.
7. Lee Beckstead's study, based on four years of intensive interviews of 50 individuals, provides the most complete and detailed analysis to date of Latter-day Saint homosexuals. Beckstead's conclusion is that none of his fifty subjects, even those who self-identified as heterosexual, developed any generalized heterosexual arousal even after an average of four years in therapy and an average of two years in a support group, such as Evergreen. He notes, however, that hope is possible. Even though very few change in their attractions, it is possible to reduce or eliminate the distress and conflict about the attractions and find options that fit for the individual (See Beckstead, "Two Studies on Sexual Reorientation Therapy").
The very last line of the table indicates that there was a continuation of same sex attraction for most or all of these Latter-day Saint persons.
** 113 attempted change in the total sample of 136
***The table is left blank where the data are unknown
Counseling with Homosexual Latter-day Saints: My Experience and Insights
Beverly L. Shaw, Ph. D.
I have been asked as a practicing psychotherapist to share my experience and insights with regard to those men and women who have sought therapy with me and who by self-identification or by practice are homosexual.
Before I address that issue, however, I would like to provide some background as to who I am and where I come from. I believe I approach this request with (hopefully) the appropriate mixture of professional training, religious devotion, and practical life experience. I am a life-long and active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and am married to F. Dean Berry, who is also a life-long active member. Between us we have raised nine children and have 27 grandchildren. When my youngest child was 14, I returned to school and earned my masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, followed by a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I have been in private practice since 1982 and among the professional positions I have held was that of President and Board Member of the Association for Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists.
During the years I have been in practice I have had men and women in my office with just about every variation of homosexual issue - from those who are open about their orientation to those for whom I was the only one who knew. I've seen individuals who are repressing their attractions in order to remain acceptable in church environs, and those who left the church feeling they have been unjustly labeled as evil, dirty, and/or perverse. I have seen those who are in committed same-sex relationships working on the same types of issues as heterosexual couples and those who have tried or are trying to make a heterosexual marriage work in order to "change those aberrant feelings." I have seen women and men who desperately wanted a family and were absolutely heart-broken that they would never have it, those who accepted or had no interest in having children, and those who have actively pursued alternative approaches such as single parent adoption. I have seen everything from the stereotypical leather-wearing gay biker to the (apparently) "straight" recommend-holding Priesthood leader.
Some have come to me because of homosexual issues, and some have come for other issues that were unrelated. I can say with some amount of surety that probably the most challenging and heart rending therapy experiences that I have shared is the pain of those individuals who are/were devoted members of the LDS church and who are also homosexual. The anguish they feel at having a part of themselves completely at odds with what they hold sacred is indescribable and unfortunately is usually compounded by feelings of abandonment by God — that He has rejected their pleadings for help. An interesting paradox that I have noticed is that the majority of the individuals I have seen have not been the rebellious, rule breaking, defiant, anti-gospel individuals one might expect. Almost without exception they have been spiritual, devoted to the gospel, and possessed very strong testimonies. The majority of men, as well as women, had served successful missions and held positions of leadership. However, most of them have ended up sorrowfully leaving the Church because they feel spiritually and emotionally battered and bruised when there. I have not kept a count of the numbers of homosexual men and women I have had in therapy over the years (it probably runs in the hundreds), but I can say without reservation that none of them chose this orientation, none of them accepted it with a blase attitude, and none escaped the heart-rending "Why me?" Not one has ever given any indication it was something chosen or desired.
These men and women find themselves in an untenable situation. In order to continue to be part of the religious community that has professed to love them and called them brothers and sisters, they must deny an intrinsic part of themselves. Instead of being shown that they are valued not just as spiritual siblings, but as cherished sons and daughters of God, they now find that at best they are excluded and gossiped about, and, at worst, completely ostracized or excommunicated and officially labeled as deviant or perverse. Even sadder, is that this is often compounded by their being cut off and rejected by their parents and siblings, who use the Church's stand as their justification. The results are devastating.
It is clear that we (researchers, therapists, spiritual leaders, family members) do not know the complete complex etiology of homosexuality. In my experience, when a family history and genogram are done, there are other extended family members —aunts, uncles, cousins, 2nd cousins, etc.— who are also homosexual, which suggests a very strong genetic factor. Further, there is sufficient well-documented research to show enough of a biological component that, "they chose this" and "they could change if they wanted to" should never be used in connection with homosexual individuals.
When orienting an individual about therapy and what to expect from it, and the issue is emotional and/or sexual same-gender attraction, I include the fact that there are therapists who practice reparative therapy and explain the theories and methods supporting it. I include a discussion about the attraction continuum, with a complete heterosexual inclination at one end and complete homosexual inclination at the other, noting that those individuals we call "bi-sexual" cluster somewhere around the center. In my experience it is those bi-sexual individuals for whom reparative therapy has some possible help. For those further along the homosexual end of the continuum, reparative therapy is yet another instance of dashed hope.
I agreed to share this brief overview of my experience for two reasons. First, is to give credibility to my urging that all official and unofficial communication from the sustained leaders of our Church regarding homosexuality be couched in the most loving, understanding, inclusive Christlike-terms. This includes clearly telling parents that disowning and denigrating their homosexual children is a betrayal of their stewardship and a sin of enormous magnitude. Second, is to urge that "selling" of reparative therapy to Bishops, Stake Presidents and Regional Leaders as the cure-all for homosexuality be stopped. What they need is accurate information about what that type of therapy can potentially do and what it cannot do so that they are not inadvertently adding another layer of pained disappointment to an already burdened soul.
God has told us He has need of us all. If He does, then surely we as a Church do. There must be some way in a religion that carries the name of Jesus Christ that we can find a place for our homosexual brothers and sisters within our midst. I humbly pray you will prayerfully consider their plight.
Russ Gorringe served for eight years in the leadership of Evergreen, a Church affiliated support group for Mormons. He also was married in the temple, is the father of four children, served in a bishopric and in a stake presidency. He recently agreed to divorce his wife of 25 years at her request. He remains active in the Church.*
I am a life-long Latter-day Saint. I first became aware of my same-sex orientation when I was a boy. When I turned twelve, I asked my mother to help me see a psychiatrist. I was involved in therapy until I went on my mission. When I came home, I got married, but I had deep misgivings about my ability to function sexually in a marriage. When I knelt at the altar with my bride, both of us virgins, I was in a near panic for fear of what lay ahead. Even though I loved my wife and still consider her my best friend, there was little physical intimacy in our marriage.
Although I tried desperately to reduce or eliminate my same-sex attraction (SSA) over the years, none of my efforts have been successful. I have been a faithful, committed Latter-day Saint. My church service includes serving in a bishopric and stake presidency, and my regular gospel living includes daily reading of the scriptures, consistent family home evenings and temple attendance. Fully living the gospel and following the programs of the Church did nothing to relieve my SSA during my mission or my marriage. Having done everything which my leaders had suggested to me to no avail I was quite frankly feeling desperate and depressed.
On April 10, 1989, just about 15 years ago and eleven years into my marriage, I went to my first Evergreen meeting. I was very scared because prior to that time I had never really had a conversation with a gay man and certainly not with anyone who I knew to be Mormon. From Spring 1989 until about two years ago when I attended my last Evergreen conference I was fully involved with Evergreen except for some reduction in my activity during the last year or two. Within two years after my first meeting in 1989 I was on the governing board of Evergreen. I helped write the first mission statement, helped plan the national conferences, and edited the newsletter. I was also, because of the travel I did with my employer, BYU, a sort of traveling representative and was a liaison between Evergreen and its affiliate groups, a number of which I helped organize.
My experience in Evergreen led me to the conclusion that it has a valuable role to play in the lives of many of those who experience SSA within the Church. It helps people like me find a safe place to talk about our attractions and behaviors and to realize that we are not the only Latter-day Saints dealing with this issue who desire to obey the law of chastity. It was good for me to be in a place where finally I could talk to others like me without condemnation and where I had some hope of reclamation, neither of which I had been able to find in the Church up to that point. Evergreen at least gave the initial perception that "reclamation" was possible. Eventually, I concluded it was something of a mistaken perception and that along with the positive there are some dark sides to Evergreen involvement.
Over the 12 years I was fully involved in Evergreen I became acquainted with most of those who surfaced briefly or for longer periods of time. Nearly all who participated were men--at least 90-95%. The men, whether single or married, were encouraged to bring themselves back into regular church activity and were asked to move beyond Evergreen, although no one was ever forced to leave. As I look back I think a conservative estimate would be that I came to know over 300 men reasonably well during this period of involvement. My story was often told as one of the major success stories within Evergreen and I was invited by a key therapist to go on a national TV show to tell my story. In quiet moments of reflection, however, as the years passed, I gradually began to realize that my SSA continued without interruption.
When married men left Evergreen, we generally assumed we had gained control and were going to resume a satisfying life in our marriages and within the Church. In the last two years since I have circulated within the healthy gay groups in and around Salt Lake City, I regularly run into countless numbers of these once married men. Most of those I meet have now embraced their homosexuality. Most express amazement but understanding that I was not able to stay in my marriage because I was thought to be such a beacon and such a success story, but they also know that they too were unsuccessful in their attempts to change their sexual orientation and stay in a viable marriage.
I hear also from time to time of other men who once were in Evergreen and left as success stories, like one good friend who presently continues in his temple marriage, serves on a high council, but who is leading a double life. There are also the success stories of Evergreen, as I once was, who have been able to continue in their marriages and in the Church. I attribute the success of most of these to the fact that they stay heavily involved in Evergreen and through sublimation seem to stay in line. One of these men who is prominently featured in Evergreen activities recently said in my presence when asked if he has moved beyond the point of struggling, "Oh, it is always a struggle!" Virtually all the men who stay involved this way are married. Based on my observations, I concur with the estimate that 50% of the married men who want to stay married are able to do so. This does not necessarily mean the marriages are fully healthy or mutually satisfactory.
As for the men who came to Evergreen single, and left single, I continue to see them within the "out" gay community and elsewhere, and we resume our friendship. These individuals are in two groups: 1) those who attended meetings for 2 or 3 months before leaving. In the Salt Lake groups I attended regularly there were perhaps only 30-40 who would fall into this category annually. 2) those who stayed active in Evergreen for 1 to 3 years. There were perhaps 12 such individuals in Evergreen annually. Those in both groups came with high hopes and believing hearts, both of which eroded over time as they realized that their SSA was not changing. Others quit going after 1-3 years hoping they had reached a stage where they could go on with their lives and feeling they had grown out of SSA. In conversations with men in this group whether they are in or out of the Church, virtually all seem to acknowledge that their SSA persisted. The ones in the second group are the ones who seem to have the most difficulty because in general they seem not to have been able to accept their continuing feelings of SSA.
Of all the single men I saw in Evergreen over a period of the twelve years of my involvement, I can only think of ten or so who progressed to the point where they felt they could marry, but I have serious concerns about their marriages. In short, my observation squares with that of therapists whose reports are included in this publication that few homosexual single men who have participated in Evergreen have chosen marriage.
In fairness, I should acknowledge that Evergreen never really promoted marriage and at times leaders and therapists would urge the single men to postpone dating and marriage. However, there was a persistent suggestion that by developing healthy relationships with heterosexual men, in time, marriage might be a possibility. Those who chose to risk marriage were no doubt influenced by the tremendous social pressure within the Church to marry. For most homosexuals, marriage is the fundamental driving force behind the desire to change and a powerful motivation in a religious society in which one cannot achieve exaltation without having a spouse and family.
The dark side of Evergreen from my perspective includes the false hopes which are promoted that SSA will be diminished over time. Another unfortunate practice is the effort to undermine the quality of life of those who are openly gay. There is a continuing negative refrain within Evergreen about the "lifestyle"—a code term that suggests a perverse and promiscuous lifestyle. I now know that much of what I was told in Evergreen about the "homosexual lifestyle" is untrue and is based on unfortunate stereotyping. What I have observed about those in the so-called "lifestyle" is that, contrary to what I had been told, it includes many faithful, god-fearing, wholesome people with good values and principles. When participants in Evergreen talk negatively about the "lifestyle" these verbal attacks are "gay bashing" of the people who will in the end be the ones who give them friendship and unconditional love.
I hope based on my experience and that of the many men who I saw at Evergreen, that someday when the ward bishop holds a standards night he includes as part of his discussion a comment that there are some present who because of SSA will not be able to marry.
*Biographical data reflect current information as of the 2004 date of publication.
Robert A. Rees, Ph.D.
I grew up with what were the normal American attitudes toward homosexuals—I considered them as flawed, perverted, even perverse. The attitude of my father towards homosexuals caused me from an early age to have an angry, visceral reaction to them. Although I never acted on such feelings, I somehow felt it was appropriate to physically punish them for being so against nature. I was also taught to consider them dangerous to me personally.
My first real awareness of homosexuality on a personal level (everything up to this point was spoken in hushed, disapproving language or with indirect, suggestive hints) came during my fifteenth year when a Latter-day Saint band teacher was hired at our high school in a small Arizona town. I was naïve and vulnerable and was not sophisticated enough to interpret his friendship and even affection as dangerous. Before the year was out he had sexually abused me and several of my friends. That experience was disturbing and confusing, and added to my fear and loathing of homosexuals.
My next significant encounter with homosexuals was in the mission field where obviously effeminate elders were the subject of whispered gossip and, at times, unkind jokes and teasing. I was also aware when I was a student at BYU that certain of my classmates were identified as "queer," although I was not close to any of them.
It wasn't until I went away to graduate school that I began to have close association with homosexuals—of both genders. There, it was clear that some of my fellow students as well as some of my professors were gay or lesbian. It was during these years that my attitudes toward homosexuals began to change. I knew and associated with people who seemed like everyone else except for the fact that they were attracted to their own gender. Some became friends.
When I took my first teaching position at UCLA as a new assistant professor of English, my experience with homosexuals expanded, although my attitudes toward them were slow in changing. A number of my colleagues in the English Department were gay or lesbian, as were some of my students and teaching and research assistants. It was during these years that I began to read about homosexuality and to try and understand homosexual experience.
Undoubtedly, the slow evolution of my attitudes and understanding was influenced by what I heard and read about homosexuals at church. Most of what I understood was that homosexuality itself was "an abomination" in the sight of God, that it was a grave sin, that it was a perversion, and that it was something people chose and could change if they desired.
When I became bishop of the Los Angeles First (Singles') Ward in 1986, I set as my first challenge to meet everyone in the ward, including all those who were inactive. I did this through a series of fifteen minute interviews held over the first several months of my tenure. During these interviews and in subsequent interviews with each new member who came into the ward, it became clear that there were a number of homosexuals under my pastoral care, many of whom were either estranged from the Church or who had a tangential relationship to it. I tried to create an environment in which these individuals felt welcome and, as a result, a number who had been inactive or whose activity was marginal began coming to church. In part because of this supportive environment, the ward attracted homosexuals from neighboring stakes.
Those who were under my care knew that I endorsed a single standard of sexual morality and that sexual misconduct had to be dealt with through standard ecclesiastical procedures, but they also knew that I was understanding and supportive of those who were making a sincere effort to align their lives with gospel standards.
As a result of my experience with homosexual Latter-day Saints and in an effort to help the heterosexual members of my ward understand and support their gay and lesbian fellow saints, I gave a major sacrament meeting address entitled "No More Strangers," in which I tried to establish a gospel framework for how heterosexuals should understand, treat and relate to homosexuals. That address has been twice printed and has been widely read.
During the time I was bishop I had what I would estimate to be somewhere in the neighborhood of forty homosexuals under my care. Although it has been more than a decade since I was released from my calling as bishop, I still keep in touch with some of these members and count them among my friends. Some of the most rewarding experiences I had as a bishop were with homosexual saints, especially with those who came back into full fellowship.
Since being released as a bishop I have continued to be a friend and counselor to homosexual Latter-day Saints. Because I had a reputation of being an open and supportive bishop and because I have sought to reconcile homosexuals with the Church and to expand the understanding of heterosexual Latter-day Saints toward homosexuals, I continue to get calls from ecclesiastical leaders, parents of homosexuals and homosexuals themselves seeking guidance in this area. In these experiences, I always try to convey my limitations both in understanding homosexuality and in offering guidance. Always I encourage people to seek for information and inspiration from appropriate sources and, where appropriate, to seek professional counseling.
My experience with the fifty or so homosexuals with whom I have had a close relationship over the past twenty years can be summarized as follows: I have not met a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who chose or was able to change or alter his or her sexual orientation. I also have not met a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who had not tried valiantly, generally over a long period of time, to change his or her orientation. Some of the most painful experiences I had as a bishop related to homosexual members recounting their desperate, even heroic efforts to change their sexual orientation. For many, these efforts took place over a number of years and involved incredible sacrifice and self-denial. Because they had been led by priesthood leaders to believe that they could change if they were just righteous or self-sacrificing enough, when change didn't come, they tended to blame themselves. Such self-blame often led to alienation from God and his church and at times to self-destructive behavior, including suicide.
Most if not all of the homosexual Latter-day Saints with whom I have worked over the years have been in therapy, some for extended periods of time. Many were under the care of LDS Social Services/Family Services therapists or other Latter-day Saint therapists. My general summary of their experience with LDS Social Services/Family Services therapists is not a positive one, mainly because these therapists focused on orientation change. Some Latter-day Saint therapists in private practice, including several that I used in my own stake, proved in general to be more effective in their treatment. Several homosexuals with whom I have been associated had been involved in Church (indirect) or BYU-sponsored reparative therapy treatments. Universally, these proved to have quite destructive consequences. A number of the homosexuals had sought help and treatment through Evergreen. Most reacted negatively to Evergreen programs.
One of the problems we face in this arena is that there is a tendency of those in Evergreen and Family Services to generalize from a few case studies in which a homosexual or bisexual may have manifest some change or adjustment to all homosexuals. The absence of a consistent, responsible history of clinical studies of homosexuality among Latter-day Saints has created a vacuum in which a few therapists, convinced that change is the answer, have dominated the discussion and have had a disproportionate influence on Church policy and practice. To many Latter-day Saint therapists in private practice, the influence of a small group of Evergreen/Family Service therapists has been extremely costly—in terms of the alienation of homosexuals from the Church, ruptures within families, and particularly the pain and deaths of homosexuals themselves.
Of the fifty or so Latter-day Saint homosexuals with whom I have worked over the years, I would say the vast majority have tended to show a pattern wherein they make all the adjustments they can through therapy, gospel living and church participation, but become disillusioned with the prospect of finding a resolution to their related social, spiritual and sexual conflicts. As they get older, most simply drop out of the Church, even when they choose to live lives of celibacy. In general, the Church does not provide a friendly, nurturing environment for homosexuals. The experience of homosexuals in California and elsewhere where the Church has undertaken to support legislation relating to marriage has been to see an increase in anti-homosexual sentiments in their own wards and stakes. Many homosexuals face similar negative reactions from family members as well.
The result of these experiences leads to a gradual erosion of hope and confidence in the Church as a place where homosexuals feel they are part of the community of saints. Some homosexual Latter-day Saints gravitate to other more gay-friendly churches where they can sustain a spiritual and religious life; most, however, tend to gravitate to more secular environments. Of the fifty or so Latter-day saints in the orbit of my experience, I know only five past the age of thirty who have maintained an affiliation with the Church. Those homosexuals who stay in the Church may tend toward asexuality or may be particularly adept at sublimating their sexual desires. Those who might be characterized as having healthy libidos almost always disassociate themselves from the Church after a long period of trying to adjust to Church expectations.
Although I am not an authority on homosexuality and am not trained as a therapist, I trust the experience of those homosexuals I know personally. When a homosexual does everything he or she can to change his or her orientation over a ten to fifteen-year period, including serve a mission, work in the temple, hold church callings, fast and pray frequently, and keep all of the commandments, and change doesn't come, the conclusion is either that he or she hasn't tried hard or long enough or that change won't come. Personally, I don't know of a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who didn't try desperately to change his/her orientation, who wouldn't have changed if he or she could have, or who, in spite of all efforts (including promises and blessings from ecclesiastical leaders), was able to change. This is a reality I accept and one that I feel the Church must face if it hopes to have any chance of redeeming its homosexual members.
(Survey conducted in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 1994)
Ron Schow, Ph.D.
In 1994 I conducted a survey at the Affirmation Conference in Las Vegas. Affirmation is a support group for homosexual Mormons. The purpose of the survey was to gather information about homosexuals attending the conference who were once affiliated with the Mormon Church but who at the time in general were disaffiliated. (A copy of the survey is shown at the end of this report.)
An initial group of 78 individuals completed the survey at the conference. An additional 58 returned the survey at a later time, making a total of 136 respondents. Of the 123 respondents who identified themselves by gender, 85% were male and 15% were female. Ages of the respondents ranged from 18 to 66 years, with the average being 37 years of age.
The majority of the respondents had deep roots in Mormon culture. A number reported a heritage of distinguished Church families. Three reported having relatives who served as general authorities or in a general auxiliary presidency and three reported having parents who had served in a temple or mission presidency. Three had fathers and four had brothers who had served in a stake presidency and two had a father who was a stake patriarch. Nine reported having mothers who had been Relief Society or Primary presidents. Eighteen had fathers who had served as bishops or branch presidents; an additional 28 had fathers or brothers who served as bishop's or branch president's counselors.
In terms of church activity, of the 136 respondents, average attendance was 92% as children, 94% as teens, 88% as young adults, but only 17% average attendance was reported at the time of the survey. (These numbers are skewed by the fact that some of the participants were converts who had no opportunity of attending church in their earlier years.) There were a remarkable number of returned missionaries in this group (96 or 71%) (see Table 1).
Indicative of spiritual tension in the lives of the respondents is the discrepancy between current belief in Church doctrine (60%) and current attendance (17%) and religious practice, as defined by prayer and/or scripture study (26%).
The dramatic decline in church attendance between teen and young adult years and the present is undoubtedly related to the fact that 86% of the participants rank at the high homosexual end (5 or 6) of the Heterosexual-Homosexual Scale (HH Scale), with 0 being fully heterosexual and 6 being fully homosexual (see Table 2). On average, within the current sample the respondents reported that by age 12 they recognized emotional same sex attraction (SSA) and by age 14 they recognized sexual SSA, but they didn't identify themselves as gay or lesbian until age 23.(This delayed identification appears to be related to strong societal taboos against homosexuality.)
Beginning about a decade ago, Church leaders began to make the distinction between same-sex attraction and same-sex behavior. This distinction was emphasized by President Hinckley who said in General Conference in 1998, "They [homosexuals] may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control. Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times. If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church."
Unfortunately, certain therapists within the Church have promoted the idea that such individuals can change their feelings, diminish their SSA and eventually marry an individual of the opposite gender. While some bisexuals (those with scores of 1 to 4 on the HH Scale) may be able to establish relatively successful marriages, the Affirmation survey suggests that those who attempt marriage when their scores are 5 or 6 on the HH Scale will have unsuccessful marriages even though they have a strong history of Church activity and service.
The futility of change or reparative therapy for those who rate 5 or 6 on the HH Scale is shown by data from the survey. Of the 136 respondents, 112 (82%) reported attempts to change by personal efforts, ecclesiastical counseling or professional therapy. Those who tried to change on their own used such strategies as prayer, scripture study and fasting over an average of 11 years. Eighty-three respondents reported counseling with various ecclesiastical leaders (average of 3.2 sessions) in efforts to change. A total of 50 went to LDS Social Services for therapy an average of 4 sessions and 62 went for other counseling an average of 21 sessions. This suggests that various individuals tried different combinations of the four strategies listed above. From these efforts, 84 reported on change in feelings and 71 of these 84 reported experiencing no change at all. There were 64 who reported on change in behavior and within this group of 64, 47 said there was no change at all.
In spite of many efforts to change their orientation, 94% of those respondents who answered the question about acceptance of their orientation identified themselves as being gay or lesbian. This is not the level of success that some have led us to expect, especially for those who have had a history of close church affiliation and missionary service.
The promise of change in relation to the persistence of same sex attraction may account for the fact that most of the participants (88%) went through long periods of anxiety, depression or worse as teens. Respondents reported a disturbingly high incidence of emotional distress. Of the group, 89 reported anxieties, 78 occasional depression, 37 frequent serious depression, 61 occasional thoughts of death and suicide, 12 frequent thoughts of suicide and 8 attempts at suicide. The acceptance of their orientation and perhaps the benefit of therapy may also account for the fact that 72 of the 102 (71%) who reported their current emotional status now feel they have no emotional difficulties, only 11 now report some anxieties, and only 16 now report occasional depression. For the most part, survey participants seemed to have moved to a much more stable emotional state once they accepted their sexual orientation.
The difficulty of marriage for homosexuals in the 5-6 HH scale range is shown by the fact that 36 of the respondents (26%) had been married for an average of 9 years and had an average 2.5 children. Of these 36, 33 were divorced at the time of the survey (two are still married and one is widowed). The 29 who rated their marriages report a 56% average satisfaction level. This compares to the 97 who rated their same sex partnerships at an 84% satisfaction level over an average of 3.4 years duration.
The survey data suggest that family members of Latter-day Saint homosexuals by-and-large fail to give appropriate help in dealing with this condition. This is reflected in the negative feelings participants report having toward family members from whom they sought help when they were dealing with their same-sex attraction during their teens. Most felt they had not been helped or understood. Of the 117 who reported seeking help from their family, only 9% said their family was helpful, 72% said the family provided no help, and 19% said their family was hurtful in how they responded. Nineteen participants reported that no one in the family knows of their same-sex attraction. Of those participants whose families do know of their homosexuality, 70% report verbal support and 58% report active support.
The feelings of respondents toward the Church are even more a matter for concern. When asked how the Church helped them up to age 19, only 4% of the 115 respondents said the Church was helpful. Forty-six percent said the Church was no help and 50% said it was hurtful. Presumably, much of this hurt had to do with being told they could change their attractions and could marry when, in fact, this was not sound advice.
A number of respondents (over 40%) were subject to Church disciplinary councils. Of the 127 who reported their current Church status, 11% had been put on probation, 12% had been disfellowshipped, and 18% excommunicated. Also relevant is the fact that 62% of the respondents report affiliation with another Church.
According to the survey data, there seems to be either a genetic link with homosexuality or an inexplicably high incidence of this condition in certain families. Of the 81 of 136 (60%) respondents reporting having relatives who are homosexual, 55 reported having a cousin, 26 a sibling, 18 an aunt or uncle, and 11 another relative who is either gay or lesbian.
Taken together, the data from this survey suggest that Latter-day Saint homosexuals have significant challenges in their lives. From an early age they feel they were not helped or supported by their families or by ecclesiastical leaders. Most spend considerable time trying to accommodate to family and church expectations, only to become disillusioned and disappointed. Many make heroic efforts to either change or conform to societal expectations only to become disillusioned when homosexual attraction persists or when failed attempts at conformity are met with rejection and even hostility. As the data from this survey suggest, the cost for individuals, families and the church itself of our cultural failure to solve or resolve issues relating to homosexuality is very high.
Circle or check or fill in the best answer for each item
1. M F Age_____ Date of birth D/M/Y_____/_____/_____
Place you were raised___________ Place you live now___________
2. FIRST AWARENESS OF SAME SEX ATTRACTION (SSA):
1) ____age you recognized emotional attraction to same sex
2) ____age you recognized sexual attraction to same sex
3) ____age you recognized yourself as gay, lesbian or bisexual
3. ESTIMATE OF SSA ON KINSEY SCALE:
0 - totally heterosexual
1 - mainly heterosexual, slightly homosexual
2 - mainly heterosexual, more than slightly homosexual
3 - equal homo and heterosexual
4 - mainly homosexual, more than slightly heterosexual
5 - mainly homosexual, slightly heterosexual
6 - totally homosexual
4. RESOURCES FOR COPING WITH SSA UP TO AGE 19:
(check all that apply)
Family 1) ______helpful 2)______unhelpful 3)_______hurtful
Church 1) ______helpful 2)______unhelpful 3)_______hurtful
What was helpful to you before 19: literature_____friends_____
5. RETURNED MISSIONARY:
1) _______yes 2) _______No 3) _______Sent home early
MISSION EXPERIENCE RELATED TO SSA:
1) ______fell in love with companion(s)
2) ______any same-sex sexual activity: please specify__________
3) ______any church discipline
4) ______none of above
6. CURRENT MARRIAGE/RELATIONSHIP STATUS: (check all that apply)
1) ______single, no opposite sex marriage or same-sex relationship at present
2) ______number of marriages to opposite sex
3) ______level of satisfaction for best marriage (0-100%, 100% greatest satisfaction)
4) ______years married in most satisfying marriage
5) ______number of children from marriages(s)
7) ______number of significant same-sex relationships
8) ______level of satisfaction for best relationship (0-100%, 100% greatest satisfaction)
9) ______years in most satisfying relationship
7. EFFORTS TO CHANGE/REORIENT SAME-SEX ATTRACTION: (check all that apply)
2) _____years of effort
3) _____counsel with church leaders
4) _____number of leaders
5) _____LDS Social Services counseling
6) _____number of sessions
7) _____other formal counseling
8) _____number of sessions
RESULTS OF CHANGE/REORIENTATION EFFORTS
______ (0-100%) amount of decrease in same-sex thoughts/dreams
(with 100% a total elimination) ______No thoughts or dreams to begin with close response
______ (0-100%) amount of decrease in same sex behavior
(with 100% a total elimination) ______No behavior to begin with
______ (0-100%) acceptance of SSA at present
IF (PRESTO) YOU COULD BECOME HETEROSEXUAL, WOULD YOU WANT TO?
1) ______yes 2) _______no 3) ______maybe
8. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN EMOTIONALLY TROUBLED OVER SSA: (check all that apply)
2) ______anxieties/difficulties at job or school
3) ______occasional depression
4) ______frequent serious depression
5) ______occasional thoughts of death /suicide
6) ______frequent thoughts of death/suicide
7) ______attempted suicide
9. FAMILY DATA AND ATTITUDES TOWARD SSA: (check all that apply)
Highest Church calling held by close family member:
NUMBER OF OTHER FAMILY MEMBERS WITH SSA:
1) _____immediate family _____number
2) _____cousin _____number
3) _____aunt/uncle _____number
4) _____other _____number
LEVEL OF SUPPORT FROM FAMILY MEMBERS WHO KNOW
1) ______number in immediate family to whom I have come out (if none enter zero); specify to whom you are out____________
2) ______% supportive in the way they talk to me and to others (0-100%)
3) ______% supportive in their actions (go to support meetings, welcome my friends, etc)
10. CHURCH PARTICIPATION: (fill in all that apply)
1) LEVEL OF LDS CHURCH ACTIVITY (0-100%)
_____as young adult
2) _____PERCENT OF BELIEF IN LDS DOCTRINE NOW
3) _____PERCENT OF TIME I PRAY AND/OR READ SCRIPTURES DAILY
4) _____LEVEL OF ACTIVITY IN NON-LDS CHRUCH (0-100%)
LDS CHURCH DISCIPLINARY ACTION FOR SSA:
1) _____probation ever
2) _____disfellowshipped ever
3) _____excommunication ever
4) _____none of above
Lee Beckstead, Ph.D
Lee Beckstead is a returned LDS missionary who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Utah. He is a licensed Psychologist and has a private practice in the Salt Lake City area. He facilitates a therapy group to help same-sex attracted individuals resolve their sexual, social, and religious conflicts.
Among those in the Church who deal with homosexuality or same sex attractions (SSA) there are strong and divergent points of view. There has been a long history of heated institutional debate concerning the pros and cons of sexual reorientation therapy. Other terms for sexual reorientation therapy include conversion therapy, reparative therapy, or transition therapy. Some believe this type of therapy should be banned whereas others believe it is beneficial and that existing treatments should be further developed. Both sides agree that there are individuals with same-sex attractions who seek help or a "cure" from their attractions. Options open to such individuals are limited to becoming an "out" gay (lesbian/gay/bisexual affirming) or an "ex" gay (someone who is against the idea of being gay and seeks to act and be heterosexual). These polarized views and options may not serve all clients with same-sex attractions who are seeking help in dealing with religious conflicts.
In order to gain more understanding concerning transition or reparative therapy, I conducted two qualitative research studies (Beckstead, 1999, 2001). The studies sought answers to the reasons individuals seek reorientation therapy, what the effects are of that therapy, and how the individuals are able to resolve their desire for change of their sexual orientation. Conclusions showed that there were some who experienced a positive change through therapy, but not the type of change which is being claimed by proponents of the therapy. Others experienced harm through the same interventions. The rest of this paper will discuss these results in greater detail.
Over a four-year period, perspectives were gathered through individual interviews, journal writings, focus group discussions, and participant checks. Fifty individuals with same-sex attraction were included in this study (5 women, 45 men). All underwent counseling to change their sexual orientation and all were or had been members or converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The individuals fell into two groups: those who believed in the ideology of reparative therapy and those who did not. Those who believed in reparative therapy believed that:
Reported Outcomes of Conversion Therapy
Positive outcomes reported by participants in these therapy programs included:
Distressful identity problems had developed in participants from feelings of not fitting in while growing up in homo-negative or heterosexist environments. These environments caused each participant to have a restricted viewpoint that being gay involved being sinful, addictive, diseased and disadvantaged. Resolving the identity problem made many involved in the therapy feel that the therapy was successful in spite of not having any increase in attractions for the opposite sex. Instead of identifying as gay, they learned to accept the fact that they had attractions for the same sex. They learned that these attractions were not something they chose and having these attractions did not make them bad persons, only what they chose to do with those emotions had a moral implication. The new label, Same Sex Attracted (SSA), provides a way of accepting one's homosexual attractions without an acceptance of what they considered the distressful identity of being gay.
Although elements of reparative therapy can be beneficial, its underpinnings and current practice also have potential for harm. Some elements have the potential for both benefit and harm. For example, change therapists believe that an unhealthy parent-child relationship creates a homosexual child. Therefore, they encourage a closer, affectionate, and healthier relationship with a parent figure which can be good, but can also place blame on parents for the person's sexual orientation, produce false hope, and hurt relationships and the healing process.
Effective and beneficial results from therapy programs that participants experienced include:
Alternative Therapy Plan
Many participants stated that the current alternative to transition therapy, LGB-affirmative therapy, is not an option for many same-sex attracted individuals. This latter therapy seeks to help persons identify and express themselves as "out"-LGB individuals. Research participants expressed a need for a therapeutic environment open to many possibilities. Many of them desired to remain heterosexually married as they continued to accept having same-sex attractions. These two research studies provide the foundation for establishing a broader-based therapy plan, one based on participants' descriptions and objectives, which is designed to produce the most therapeutic benefit, the least harm, and workable solutions. Above all, the goal is to facilitate positive identifications, regardless of sexual identity.
Hopefully, the debate over conversion therapy can change from a war between opposing camps, with reparative therapists on one side and LGB-affirmative therapists on the other. Ultimately, the client is the one who will be hurt from such divisions. Society in general tends to have an uninformed and impulsive response to homosexuality without recognizing the consequences these negative actions have on individuals' self-worth and potential. It is important to find ways to eliminate messages that wound, shame, and disenfranchise. Religion plays a role in this conflict due to its imposed penalties and powerful influence to dictate members' attitudes and behaviors. Spiritually faithful, same-sex attracted individuals may find little comfort or sense of belonging in religious doctrines and in their communities because of the lack of acceptance or understanding. With current traditional religious frameworks, options seem limited for integrating sexual and religious identities into one complete sense of self.
Although psychological organizations may not be able to change the doctrines of religion and religious institutions may not be able to change the views of LGB-affirmative advocates, it can be productive to seek a dialogue that draws upon the strengths of each viewpoint. Both groups can try to learn acceptance, honesty, and understanding in regard to the other side, and a forum for all voices to be heard and respected should be established. The objective of this dialogue could be of countering intolerance, discrimination, and separation that exist in our society over this issue. As one research participant expressed, "I feel that more good could be done by the psychological and religious communities if they were to band together and help sexual minorities shed their self-hatred and find a respected place in society."
To Church Leaders
For ecclesiastical leaders who counsel with church members who are dealing with same-sex attractions, there are several important points I would ask you to consider:
Beckstead, A. L. (1999). "'Gay is not me': Seeking congruence through sexual reorientation therapy." Master's thesis, University of Utah.
Beckstead, A. L. (2001). "The process toward self-acceptance and self-identity of individuals who underwent sexual reorientation therapy." Doctoral dissertation, University of Utah.