We’ve just had another week of rancorous arguments about conversion therapy. In brief, conversion therapy is a term invented to describe a wide variety of techniques to help people get over being gay. Some of the techniques are exclusively religious using such things as prayer and meditation, but other techniques are borrowed from psychiatric treatments (many of them long since discontinued by psychiatric medicine). The word therapy is meant to cast an aura of scientific validity. But medical and psychiatric associations have denounced conversion therapy as both ineffective and destructive. So far 18 states in the USA have passed laws declaring conversion therapy illegal, as have a handful of other countries.
Still, conversion therapy is clung to tenaciously by those who feel a need for hope. It was the “Hope for Wholeness Network” that made headlines last week when its founder, McKrae Game made his last and most definite denunciation of the therapy and announced that he was also gay, meaning that not even the founder of the largest Christian network had found “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ” (which is the slogan of the Hope for Wholeness Network). “I was a religious zealot that hurt people. People said they attempted suicide over me and the things I said to them.” Among those things were that they were going to eternal Hell. It is uncertain, of course, how many people actually succeeded in committing suicide because of the shame heaped upon them by Game and the Network. Last week he wrote on Facebook, “The very harmful cycle of self shame and condemnation has to stop.”
McKrae Game joins a lengthening list of conversion therapy enthusiasts who have declared the therapy is a fraud (misadvertizing, Game called it). In 2013 Alan Chambers, the former president of Exodus International shut down the organization. At the time, Exodus International was the largest alliance of organizations advocating the possibility of changing one’s gender orientation.
Meanwhile, also last week the results of a massive study were published about the search for a “gay gene”. It concluded that there is no one gene that determines a person’s sexual orientation, but genetics – along with environment, play a part in shaping sexuality. The August 29 issue of the Washington Post reported that Andrea Ganna, lead author and European Molecular Biology Laboratory group leader at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland said that the research reinforces the understanding that same-sex sexual behavior is simply “a natural part of our diversity as a species.” The study was published Thursday in the journal Science. It was based on interviews with 470,000 people in the UK and USA. In total, 5 genetic patterns account for not more than 32% of the factors while environment and other circumstances must account for the rest. Not only is there no gene that causes us to be gay, there is no way to find out who is genetically gay by looking at all the genes. Being gay is simply too complicated.
Even though we knew that, LGBTQ critics of the study feared that the mere fact there was a lack of convincing evidence that being gay was completely genetic would give fuel to conversion therapy advocates. Sure enough, the ink wasn’t dry on the newspaper reports before claims began to appear that “now we have science on our side that environment is what causes people to think they are gay.” If environmental factors are the main ones in people being gay, then changed environment that eliminates and counters those influences should bring about change, conservatives in government and evangelicals in Christianity were swift to explain.
The question that sustains conversion therapy advocates is, “Does it EVER work?” The answer is that there are people who swear they have been cured. There is no convincing response to such testimonies. Not even the fact that leading personalities like Martin Duberman (1991), Alan Chambers and McKrae Game have renounced conversion therapy will wipe out the conviction that it can work and has worked for some people.
The question that motivates conversion therapy opponents is, “Is it harmful?” Isn’t it just like certain diet fads which one may try and see for themselves? At the extreme, are conversion camps where under-age children are sent and subjected to horrible punishment. One of those cases came to light in the media a week ago, too. Documentary movies and books have exposed those extremes. But even verbal abuse can be damaging, and physical restraints are not the most common form of imprisonment. Family and social prisons are very real. As Game said, suicides have been attempted because of the religious bullying and intimidation. Medical societies have denounced conversion therapy not only because it is based on spurious science (and just doesn’t work) but because it damages vulnerable patients who despair that they are failing to be cured.
That is the danger. When you promise someone that they will get results they desperately want, but then they fail to get those results and it is because of their own inadequacy and weakness, you set them up to try something desperate. As a growing number of states and countries now see it, providing conversion therapy to minors is not a matter of religious freedom, it is a criminal offence.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.