Researchers have turned to biological ideas about sexual orientation because other theories have failed to provide persuasive explanations. In addition, however, biological research has advanced to the point where it can offer ideas about the development of traits that used to fall squarely within the province of psychology.Dr. Simon LeVay
Perhaps the most robust evidence proving that sexual orientation has biological origins comes from those who set out to prove otherwise. For more than a century, medical practitioners with strong anti-gay biases worked tirelessly to show that homosexuality could be “cured.” Their efforts, however, have consistently backfired:
If it were true that you could change peoples’ sexual orientation, that would have started 150 years ago,” said Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “I would say that as an historian. Certainly people tried starting 150 years ago, they started all sorts of stuff. They tried transplanting of healthy testes into gay men with the assumption that maybe that would cure them. They tried getting men to go to brothels to have sex with lots and lots of women in the hopes that that would cure them. They tried getting them to do vigorous exercise. They tried getting them to drink, not to drink. Many, many things have been tried and they don’t work.
As attitudes about homosexuality in America began to shift in the early 1990’s, anti-gay activists realized that their traditional fire-and-brimstone rhetoric was no longer effective. If they wanted to persuade mainstream Americans to vote against LGBT rights, they had to appear more loving and compassionate.
In the summer of 1998, there was a notable rebranding effort by the Religious Right, which hoped to soften its image. Fifteen anti-gay organizations — including Exodus International, The American Family Association, and The Family Research Council — launched an ambitions $600,000 advertising campaign they cynically dubbed Truth In Love. The goal was to say that people could go from gay to straight through prayer and therapy.
This effort included full-page ads featuring “ex-gays” in top newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. It was followed-up with television advertisements on cable television stations. They also rented small airplanes to fly with anti-gay messages over gay-themed events, such as Gay Days at Disney. These organizations were so ebullient about this campaign that anti-gay activist Robert Knight, who at the time worked at the Family Research Council, dubbed it the “Normandy Landing in the larger cultural wars.” The apex of this effort occurred when Newsweek ran a cover story featuring married “ex-gay” couple John and Anne Paulk under the headline, “Gay for Life?”
It didn’t take long, however, for the campaign’s message to unravel. On September 19, 2000, Truth Wins Out’s Wayne Besen photographed John Paulk — who was the chairman of Exodus International at the time — inside Mr. P’s, a Washington, DC gay bar. In 2003, Michael Johnston, the star of the Truth in Love television campaign and the founder of National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day, had to step down after an investigation by Besen and Virginia attorney Michael Hamar discovered that Johnston was sleeping with men he met online.
The movement to cure homosexuals was cast in a negative light in November 2006, when New Life Church pastor and leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard, was found to have visited a Denver escort and masseur Mike Jones, who alleged that the two had sex for three years and that Haggard had bought crystal meth.
On May 6, 2010, the Miami New Times revealed that anti-gay psychologist George Rekers, a board member with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), had gone on a European vacation with an escort he met on RentBoy.com.
These tawdry scandals are only the tip of the iceberg and prove that even those who are highly motivated leaders of the “ex-gay” industry cannot change their sexual orientation. This is why every respected medical and mental health organization in the United States warns that conversion therapy is harmful and ineffective.
Additionally, two critical pieces of scientific support for the notion that gay people could “change” have been debunked. The first pillar to fall was Masters & Johnson’s 1979 book, Homosexuality in Perspective, which claimed to cure homosexuality. In his 2009 book, Masters of Sex, author Thomas Maier discovered that the results of Masters & Johnson’s study were entirely fabricated. Virginia Johnson told Maier that she had argued in 1978 that book should not be printed – but it was already too late in the publishing process.
The second pillar to crumble was Dr. Robert Spitzer’s 2001 “ex-gay” study, where he reported that some people had gone from gay to straight. In 2012, Dr. Spitzer recanted in the American Prospect magazine. In a letter obtained by Truth Wins Out and sent to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr. Spitzer asked that his study be retracted.
More recently, several leaders in the “ex-gay” industry have apologized for their participation. In 2011, the former director of Love in Action, John Smid, claimed that he is still gay and that it is not possible to change one’s sexual orientation.
“I’ve never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual,” Smid wrote.
In April 2013, John Paulk formally apologized for his part in the “ex-gay” industry. Aside from his role with Exodus, he had been the founder of Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out conference:
For the better part of ten years, I was an advocate and spokesman for what’s known as the ‘ex-gay’ movement, where we declared that sexual orientation could be changed through a close-knit relationship with God, intensive therapy, and strong determination. At the time, I truly believed that it would happen. And while many things in my life did change as a Christian, my sexual orientation did not … I know that countless people were harmed by things I said and did in the past. Parents, families, and their loved ones were negatively impacted by the notion of reparative therapy and the message of change. I am truly, truly sorry for the pain I have caused.
The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.
In July 2012, Chambers claimed in an Associated Press article that he no longer supports reparative therapy:
I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included,” said Chambers. “For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ — that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.”
In June 2013, Chambers apologized to the LGBT community and announced that he would close down Exodus International, which had been the largest “ex-gay” organization since 1973.
Apart from the issue of “ex-gay” leaders who have defected, reparative therapy has been criticized because of its bizarre techniques. The group NARTH has a workbook for clients, written by therapist James E. Phelan, that offers a comprehensive list of 236 activities clients can participate in whenever they feel homosexual urges. This list includes:
Bowling, singing to myself, watching the sky, reading maps, caring for houseplants, going to a revival or crusade, seeing famous people, crying, seeing or smelling a flower or plant, going to a drive-thru (Dairy Queen, McDonalds, etc.), walking barefoot, bird watching, smiling at people, playing Frisbee, and going to auctions.
The international Healing Foundation, led by Christopher Doyle and Richard Cohen, have clients engage in some peculiar practices that can be observed on CNN.
While this website is dedicated to the latest scientific research, observing life can often teach us as much as the lab. Decades of empirical evidence show that highly motivated people can sometimes change their sexual behavior, but they cannot change their basic sexual orientation, meaning whom they find attractive.
We will leave you with the powerful testimonies of people who survived “ex-gay” programs: