Questing for the "Truth” of Respectability
By Robert J. Christensen
30 May 2003
In 2000, Psychological Reports published an interesting little psychological drama currently on the Mormon stage. The article, trim, fit and with an appropriate academic apparatus, is entitled "Retrospective Self Reports of Changes in Homosexual Orientation: A Consumer Survey of Conversion Therapy Clients." Three authors are listed for the article: Joseph Nicolosi of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), A. Dean Byrd of the University of Utah, and Richard W. Potts of the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. NARTH gathers individuals who believe homosexuality is morally transgressive and a psychological disaster for homosexually-oriented individuals. It sponsors conferences and publications in the hope that its efforts to change sexual orientation might one day be recognized by the therapeutic mainstream as a legitimate therapy. Byrd is an occasional teacher at the University of Utah, more often teaches at Brigham Young University, and is employed by the Thrasher Foundation, housed on the third floor of the Mormon Church's Joseph Smith Building.
The Reports is apparently a sort of free-lance academic journal that is much favored by NARTH and Mormon Church associated authors. A website hosted at the University of California at Davis (http:// psychology.ucdavis.edu /rainbow /html /facts_changing.html) reports that it is a "major outlet" for the discredited antigay psychologist Paul Cameron. The site reports that the journal "has very low prestige among researchers" and a "low rejection rate" that suggests its editors are minimally selective. Almost unique among academic journals, it is said to charge "its authors a fee to publish their papers" and is the academic equivalent of a vanity press.
"Self Reports" is an important document, less for what it says and more for the use to which it will be put. It has already become an "academic professional" weapon in Nicolosi and Byrd's battle to delay defeat in the homosexual/straight culture war. In 1966 Nicolosi sent copies of a seventy-question survey to therapists and clients; some were personal acquaintances, other were NARTH members. They were asked to give copies of the survey to other therapists and current and former clients. Copies of the survey were also distributed through ex-gay ministry groups such as Exodus and the Mormon Evergreen International. The therapists were practicing "conversion therapy" in order to change, or at least lessen, the attraction of their clients to others of the same sex. The clients which interested Nicolosi were so-called "dissatisfied homosexual-oriented people who have or are making efforts to overcome their homosexual tendencies." He and his associates thought their venture rather daring as it sought to out "a hidden population who are (sic.) difficult to identify and survey." (Reports, page 1075) The population, however, is hardly a hidden one, especially when most such clients are active in their local churches. Within the Mormon community, for example, there is an almost compulsive need to keep track of current and former members; many people have tried to "get lost" and have self-reported on the futility of their efforts. BYU alumni have reported having had to be blunt when hunted down by Brigham Young University trackers who asked for their current addresses. One imagines that the current and former client records of Evergreen International are virtually complete. And there is Disciples 2, an internet list, where dissatisfied homosexual-oriented individuals freely chat and exchange experiences.
During the past several decades Brigham Young University has supported programs to cure, or convert, the same sex attraction felt by some of its student body. Clients were shown pornographic pictures and then directed to administer electric shocks to their own bodies. The willingness of clients to subject themselves to increasingly intense shocks was seen as evidence of religious faith and sincerity. Drugs causing sever nausea were administered to other clients. These sadistic therapies were apparently not very successful other than to drive clients from BYU and the Mormon Church--and have since been replaced by gentler therapies. Even though BYU's past President, when asked, denied that the program had ever existed, the program's records have undoubtedly been neither burnt nor shredded, but still exist. The Mormon client population is hardly hidden and, if the church hierarchy were to approve, Mormon client records could provide rich materials for further research and analysis. One wonders, though, why the hierarchy has not approved; perhaps they fear the conclusions would be embarrassingly negative.
A too brief history might make a useful prologue to our Mormon psychodrama. Individuals attracted to others of the same sex have not been rare. Cases are known in virtually all cultures. In the Old Testament, David was drawn to Jonathan. In classical Greece, for example, Socrates was married but "attracted" to Alcibiadies. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo and probably Shakespeare found personal satisfaction and fulfillment in male company. For centuries male intimacy was valorized. Women were unfortunately seen as little more than seductresses and servants who would supply the physical and especially sexual needs of their male companions.
Then, post-Renaissance, a gradual change in relations took place. Women slowly became less servants and more companions, and critical attention was increasingly paid to the sexual element in relations between men. The sense of psychological completion found in physical intimacy with others of the same sex was ignored and the discourse of sodomy --of non-reproductive sex-- pushed same-sex relationships into the closet. Male-female relationships became understood in baby factory terms --an understanding which continues in Mormon discourse on the celestial kingdom.
Another shift in discourse began in the late nineteenth century. Same-sex relations were increasingly spoken of in medical terms: something was sick in the human body. With the rise of psychoanalysis, the sickness took on psychological aspects. Concern with bodily aspects still continues as researchers seek defective "gay genes," wrong-sized hypothalami, or fetuses being flooded by enzymes at the wrong time. These efforts continue but have not been very successful.
The genetic origin of some physical conditions is now clear. Genes, for example, cause chemical imbalances in the brain that result in clinical depression. The study of the effect of genes on behavior, a subject of immense complexity and difficulty, has hardly begun. It is as though Columbus had declared there was no new world to discover when he could still see the shores of Spain. The press release announcing the success of David Hamer's pioneering efforts to identify a gay gene were premature. Dean Byrd's eager dismissal of the gay gene was equally premature but understandable. The existence of a gay gene, of a biological basis for same-sex desire, would devastate his (and the Mormon hierarchy's) "can change" ideology. One can sense in his writings the deep terror that Hamer's reports must have caused him. By the mid-twentieth-century the focus of research on homosexual orientation had become mostly psychological. Homosexual individuals were said to be clearly dysfunctional because they did not find pleasure and fulfillment in the other sex. They were thought deeply unhappy, and their characters psychologically, interpersonally and spiritually marred by their homosexual orientation. Edmund Berger, Charles Socarides (embarrassingly the father of a gay activist son) and others thought they had founded pay dirt in domineering mothers and passive or absent father. This, they thought, would explain dysfunctional homosexual behavior.
Unfortunately the markings could not be found when investigated objectively. UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker found a group of happy, though closeted, homosexuals , a contradiction in terms for the conversion therapists, and tested both the homosexuals and a control group of heterosexuals for psychological well-being. The test results were then blindly grades by experienced graders who did not know whether a particular testee came from the homosexual or the heterosexual group. The graders could not tell from the test results whether a given testee was homo or hetero. The conclusion was obvious. If the homosexuals were dysfunctional, the dysfunction did not arise from their sexual orientation. Perhaps it arose from social pressures, from family and friends, from dysfunctional social and religious values and social practices.
Later studies --include this one-- have found that the one element commonly shared by unhappy homosexuals was their religious beliefs and practices. They were caught in a double bind. On one hand, they were drawn to others of the same sex. They were responding to what they felt
themselves to be. But on the other hand, their religious leaders condemned same sex relations -- at least those relations that found expression in physical, sexual behaviors. Their church leaders directed them to be something they were not, something that violated one of their deepest senses
of self. They were torn between being true to themselves, or to their church and religious beliefs. Struggle was inevitable: repress your sexuality, or forget your religion. Most same-sex attracted individuals --and this includes most Mormons-- eventually chucked their religion in favor of psychological wholeness and health.
A small minority, however, adopted a third route. They found the problem in their religion, not in themselves. They reexamined their religious beliefs and concluded that true religion is not hostile to same-sex desires, that their desires are not incompatible with a deep, personal religiosity. Living in a Christ-like manner did not require them to live as fake heterosexuals. It was this realization that sparked the organization of the Metropolitan Community Church and has stimulated the continuing growth of a thriving gay religious literature. It has also fed doctrinal reexaminations in many churches. Many are rereading scripture and discovering that traditional understandings have been misunderstandings; the prohibitions of Leviticus, for example, are now seen as arising from an attempt to preserve a male-centered social and property order and not from a divine or moral imperative to be "clean". Many denominations have begun to welcome the active membership of same-sex attracted individuals, to perform same-sex marriages and to ordain gays and lesbians to their ministries. Others, however, have felt threatened and circled their wagons in attempts to defend their old time religions.
Mormon theology, however, makes this reexamination difficult since it adopts the family as the sole pattern possible for celestial organization, and characterizes exaltation in reproductive terms. Returning into the presence of Father in Heaven is popularly spoken of not in terms of moral transformation but in procreative terms. This reading of exaltation has become a contemporary one-size-fits-all procrustean bed, a size that has virtually eliminated same-sex friendly talk of "many mansions" and "ministering angels" from Mormon discourse. Faithfully recalling Joseph Smith's notions of "many mansions" and "ministering angels" is but one way that both the Mormon church and community could move to more actively fellowship homosexual-oriented sons and daughters of God into their fold.
The religious opening to homosexual-oriented individuals has paralleled a similar change in psychiatric discourse. The attempts to change, to "convert," common to therapists in the 1950s has now become a gay positive therapy. It aims to help individuals create new identities which facilitate
wish fulfillment and happy, adjusted lives. One result was the American Psychiatric Association's 1973 removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. A second was the American Psychological Association's 1997 statement that conversion therapy was ineffective and counterproductive, a threat to the client's well being, and therefore unethical. But if conversion therapy threatens the client's well being, its condemnation threatens other interests. It threatens both the bread and butter of conversion therapists, and the homophobic biases that drive of their personal theologies. Their clients would change less, and therapists and their churches would change more.
At the same time that religious groups --and society as a whole-- have been slowly opening to homosexual concerns, individuals attracted to others of the same sex have been beginning to find common interests, a sense of shared identities and behaviors. They were becoming a social group. This group identity is not a natural identity like "black" or "quadriplegic" but a socially constructed identity like "economist," "polygamist" or even "Mormon." As the shared identity has slowly taken form, increasing numbers of same-sex attracted people have been unwilling to remain secretly hidden away in unhealthy closets. They have wanted to be able, perhaps discretely but still openly, to express their affections. They have called themselves "gay," and demanded that they, both as a group and as individuals, be recognized as the healthy and responsible people they are, as equals
deserving the respect accorded others. The emergence of this sense of identity has been one of the most important developments in the history of same-sex-oriented individuals in general, and among members of the Mormon Church in particular. It is a development that some elements of the Mormon hierarchy is struggling to challenge without much success--just as legendary King Canute vainly ordered the incoming tides to recede.