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June 02, 2009

Invisible people

Slate's William Saletan recently committed a highly daring act: He questioned leftist orthodoxy on whether sexual preferences can be changed.

[British] researchers contacted more than 1,800 mental health professionals to find out whether they would ever try to change a client's sexual orientation. Of the 1,328 practitioners who responded, one in six admitted to having helped at least one patient attempt to alter homosexual feelings. The total number of such cases reported by the respondents was 413. That's nearly one case for every three therapists.

The study's authors find this disturbing. Treatment to change homosexuality has proved ineffective and often unsafe, they argue. Therefore, therapists shouldn't try it.

If only life were that simple.

Although Saletan believes that homosexuality "isn't a sin or mental illness" and "needs no cure," and even that "any systematic program to turn gay people straight, such as "reparative therapy," is futile and dangerous," he's not ready to deny any patient his or her right to try to change. In fact, showing the courage of his convictions, he actually manages to be consistent with the "do what works for you" philosophy, unlike many others who share his beliefs. 

But therapy isn't about the big picture. It's about lots of little pictures: the worlds unique to each of us. You and I may have the same sexual orientation, but our lives are very different. You know nothing of my family, my religion, or my community. You don't even know how straight or gay I am. If I tell my therapist that I'd rather try to modify my feelings than give up my faith or my marriage, who are you to second-guess her or me? . . .

Would you tell such a patient that her understanding of God is wrong? Are you sure her attraction to women is more fundamental than her religious beliefs? Is peace with the lesbian part of her sexuality worth the destruction of her family or her faith? And most important: Do you think you can answer these questions without knowing more about her?

I'm no expert in psychology, and I don't know how common it is to approve of a psychological practice on a small scale but decry it on a large scale. However, in his own limited way, Saletan may have grasped a larger truth.

In 2007, Drs. Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse published a book-length study called Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation. Although it seems to have received little attention either from the press or the scientific establishment, the study received some noteworthy endorsements, including at least two from fellows of the American Psychological Association and one from a former APA president. While the study acknowledged that "conversion" is not always possible, it indicated that the commonly held view that "fundamental change in sexual orientation" is "unattainable" is inaccurate.

I could have told them that, having had at least two friends who've experienced lasting change, one of whom is now a grandfather. Of course, that's merely anecdotal evidence -- yet when change is considered so "unattainable" that those who've experienced it are often treated like invisible people with no voice worth listening to, every anecdote helps. Nonetheless, it's good to get some scientific backing for the idea.

Getting back to Saletan, perhaps his focus on the "little pictures" is helpful in one sense, if it reminds us of the fact that not everyone is able to change his or her inclination. There are those who face homosexual temptation all their lives and yet strive to live a celibate life because of their faith in Christ. But the mere fact that some are able to change, and that even some advocates of "sexual freedom" are able to acknowledge that, may be some sort of breakthrough. If we as a society are able to allow science to explore this idea further, perhaps a day is coming when we'll allow the invisible people their right to exist and speak.

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