By JOAN WHITELY
From age 18 to 37, Las Vegan Charlene Hios identified herself as a lesbian. Now 43, Hios said she came out of the homosexual lifestyle in 1995, and today considers herself heterosexual. Sexual orientation is not innate, Hios says. While she believes biology is a factor, social conditioning and personal choice are important factors, too. “It honestly felt like a natural thing while I was doing it,” Hios says of her past. She had her first lesbian relationship as a young recruit in the Air Force. She attributes her formation of a sexual attraction to the same sex to emotional turmoil as a child.Hios says she decided to change her sexual orientation primarily for religious reasons. She became a born-again Christian in 1995 and currently attends College Park Baptist Church. She says she accomplished the change on her own, without the assistance of formal counseling or therapy. She credits her success to prayer and the support of church friends. Now between jobs, Hios recently left a career in retail auditing and plans to go to a Baptist seminary next autumn.
Her last lesbian relationship ended in 1991. She has not experienced a romantic or sexual relationship with a man, but says she is open to the idea of dating the opposite sex. A former self-described “butch” lesbian, she says, “There are a couple of gentlemen I’m attracted to.” Ron Lawrence, the founder of Community Counseling, is diametrically opposed to Hios’ views. He believes sexual orientation is inborn and impossible to change, though possible to temporarily suppress. Post-traumatic stress disorder often results when gay people undergo therapy, even
voluntarily, to free themselves from homosexuality, Lawrence says.
He describes a male client who came to him last year at age 23, seeking help after participating in therapy at age 19. The format was aversive conditioning. It involved “shots of ammonia up the nose every time he experienced sexual arousal” when viewing a selection of pictures, including pictures of men, Lawrence says. “This boy will suffer for the rest of his life from the results of his reparative therapy,” Lawrence says. The former client, who now lives in southern Utah, did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Lawrence says the young man sought out the therapy on his own, without consulting family, because his religion — which Lawrence did not name — preaches that homosexuals will go to hell. The client stopped attending the therapy when he saw no positive changes, only more stress. It’s child abuse for parents or guardians to subject a teen to such therapy, according to Lawrence, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a gay man. In December 1999, the American University Law Review reported it unlikely that Congress or state legislatures will pass laws to label reparative therapy as abuse. But the article’s author recommended courts apply child-abuse law to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths from the “damaging effects” of therapy.
Aversive conditioning to deprogram an adult homosexual also is abusive because it plays on fear, Lawrence says. “Lots of times, an adult is told the only way to achieve (spiritual) salvation is to be different than who they are. … My advice to all religions is, instead of focusing on people’s genitals and what they do with them, (focus on) how to create unconditional love and true intimacy.” A homosexual who appears to have succeeded at changing his or her sexual behavior has probably not changed the underlying erotic attraction, Lawrence says. Many social workers and medical personnel agree.
Lawrence likens programs to help change sexual orientation to hypnosis: “They’re told and told and told in repetitive messages that they cannot be who they are.” A suppressed homosexual faces an “internal argument that is ongoing (because) the person has been forced to live in an inauthentic state of being,” Lawrence says. The dissonance usually produces intermittent relapses.
But several large faith-based ministries and even one nationally known psychiatrist, Robert Spitzer of Columbia University, believe — like Hios — that sexual orientation can be changed. Spitzer helped persuade the U.S. psychiatric profession to change its diagnostic manual in 1973, eliminating homosexuality as a mental disorder. In May 2001, he presented preliminary research to the American Psychiatric Association suggesting some individuals have changed their orientation.
Spitzer could not be reached by the Review-Journal, but his project involved doing 45-minute telephone interviews with 200 subjects. To qualify, subjects had to have undergone a significant shift from same-sex to opposite-sex attraction that had lasted at least five years. Spitzer recruited subjects from ex-gay ministries, therapists and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. The California-based association was founded 12 years ago to collect scientific information about biological factors in gay orientation.
Spitzer has not yet published this research in a scientific journal. He doesn’t support coercive treatment of gays, but told NARTH, “I believe patients should indeed have the right to explore their heterosexual potential.” He conducted his telephone research after encountering ex-gay people picketing an American Psychiatric Association’s resolution to discourage reparative therapy. “Contrary to conventional wisdom,” Spitzer is quoted as saying in both NARTH and gay-advocacy publications, “some highly motivated individuals, using a variety of change efforts can make substantial change in multiple indicators of sexual orientation, and achieve good heterosexual functioning.”
Two national Christian organizations that reach out to gays seeking a new sexual orientation are Desert Stream Ministries in California and Florida-based Exodus International North America, which is an interdenominational organization for more than 100 different programs. Another group is Evergreen International in Utah, an outreach program to gays that “supports the doctrine and standards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” says David Pruden, its executive director. The church condones sexual activity only between a married husband and wife.
None of the three ministries condone ammonia shots or other forms of aversion therapy to change sexual orientation. “That’s goofy and doesn’t work,” Pruden says. “It’s brutal. I know it’s well-meaning, but it’s medieval,” says Jonathan Hunter, a spokesman for Desert Stream. The organization offers small-group programs and support groups for gays, sex addicts and people with life-altering illnesses including AIDS.
Living Waters, the curriculum Desert Stream has developed for what it calls “gender restoration,” is now used by other organizations, including many affiliated with Exodus International. Faith-based programs to support adults who want to leave homosexuality don’t deserve to be labeled abuse, Hunter says. “This is all voluntary. These are all adults. … Let’s get a grip.”
Living Waters is based on the notion that homosexuality occurs in individuals who are “sexually and relationally broken.” Healing occurs in motivated individuals through what Hunter calls the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t believe reorientation is possible for non-Christians, particularly if they have led a gay lifestyle for a long time.
“This takes a lot of personal responsibility and honesty to go through,” Hunter says. Participants examine what Hunter calls “father wounds” and “mother wounds” in their childhood and teen years, to determine where past events may have arrested or disrupted what Living Waters views as healthy development, which should lead to opposite-sex bonding in sexual relationships. Participation in its weekly small groups is limited to people who pass a screening process to assess sincerity and religious faith. Hunter admits some gay activists and journalists have occasionally infiltrated the program to do exposés. Such individuals, he says, have never found wrongdoing though some left unpersuaded of the potential for change.
“We renounce … all religious hyperbole that targets gays as more evil than traditional sinners,” a Desert Stream mission statement reads. Its group leaders have each undergone a personal transformation, and maintained it for at least two years. Group leaders aren’t credentialed therapists, but receive in-house leadership training. Living Waters doesn’t describe its program as therapy.
Evergreen International doesn’t offer therapy, but refers callers to therapists in any requested geographic area. Therapists don’t make it onto the Evergreen resource list for using a specific treatment model or belonging to the LDS church, Pruden explains, but for sharing the belief that it’s possible to change orientation. Orientation is “partly biological (in origin) but nothing is immutable,” Pruden says. He says that LDS theology allows for continuous personal growth, even after death. “That’s why we baptize (for) the dead.”
Like Hunter, Pruden believes changing sexual orientation is difficult, and can’t be imposed from the outside. “Nobody ever makes any progress in this who isn’t very committed. You can’t be mildly interested.” Hios didn’t join a specific religious program to shed her lesbian orientation, but she supports organizations that assist gays. In fact, she hopes to enroll at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, and minister to homosexuals in nearby San Francisco. However, she says she doesn’t intend to press Christian doctrine on them. “I want to be there for them. I cannot see myself arguing with them.”