Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Response to Elder Bruce C. Hafen at Evergreen Conference Sep. 2009 (Part 1: Science and Therapy)

The recent talk by LDS General Authority, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, at the Evergreen International conference has created a good amount of attention. Most only have read the articles in the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. I took the extra step to read the entire talk, which is posted at the LDS Church's online newsroom. I could write a great deal in response to Elder Hafen's comments. I will try to keep myself to a few key points for this entry.

Elder Hafen begins with addressing ideas about the cause of homosexuality ("same-gender attraction" as he chooses to put it). Like many other talks and articles by LDS church leaders and therapists, Hafen does quite the job working towards trying to debunk the idea that sexual orientation--or more specifically homosexuality--is something innate to the individual. "Having same-gender attraction is NOT in your DNA," he says. This argument has been central to the constant position of the LDS church and Evergreen International that homosexuality can be "overcome," "changed," and otherwise altered to bring the person who "suffers" from it to "properly functioning" heterosexuality.

While it is true there is currently no direct proof or evidence of a "gay gene" or many of the other biological theories about the cause of homosexuality, this does not mean there is not compelling indirect evidence to it. I will not go into the variety of leads being pursued by the scientific community at this time. What is agreed on, by both scientist and Elder Hafen, is "So much individual variation exists with so many possible explanations that there is simply no scientific consensus about what causes homosexual tendencies," and "no universal expalation exits." As he quotes the American Psychological Association, "[N]o findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any factor or set of factors… [N]ature and nurture both play complex roles." The mistake Elder Hafen makes at this point is a classic issue, confusing the absence of proof for the proof of absence. This is why research continues based on the indirect evidence being found and theories being put out. What has failed far more consistantly is the very theory Elder Hafen, and many others I have researched, insist this somehow proves to be right: homosexuality can be changed to heterosexuality through therapy.

The "proof" behind the efficacy of "change" or "reparative" therapy is often the testimonies of those who claim to have changed from a homosexual to heterosexual orientation. This is a hotly debated issue that is all too often used as a political, social, relious, etc. football. Although Elder Hafen cites a number of sources to support the idea, all but one of them is steeped in a deep refusal to do any proper studies regarding their treatments that they cannot be treated as anything close to reliable. The only study he cites that I would consider likely to be reliable is the study by Dr. Spitzer. I have not read the study myself, and would very much like to. (If anyone can get me a copy or link to it, it would be greatly appreciated.) I have read, or at least tried to read, the other sources he cites. All of them, without exception, are so repulsive in how they go about their theories, argue their cases, treat their "supporting" evidence, and refusal to adhere to any professional process I feel physically ill whenever I read them. Some, like the work of Dean Byrd, Jason Park, and Joseph Nicolosi (not cited by Elder Hafen), are so bad I have never been able to bring myself to complete any of their works no matter how much I tried.

Now, this is not to say I completely dismiss the idea of some homosexuals being able to live a satisfying heterosexual style life. I know some men who have done it. It's not easy for them, but in as much as it is my place to say either way, I believe they are choosing to live their lives in ways that seem to be the best for them. What I have seen in all my personal experience and research is that what actually helps people develop and deal with their sexuality in a healthy and mature way is not what Evergreen International or even the LDS church all too often endorses and encourages. It is not good for these people to constantly feel like they are somehow "afflicted," "flawed," or otherwise must "suffer" their orientation. I am happy to see Elder Hafen actually saying it isn't something people should be feeling like they must suffer for or consider themselves flawed by having. He still categorizes it under the label of being an affliction. This is a subtle trend I have noticed in the general LDS rhetoric on the issue over the past few years that I find very encouraging to improving the lives of LDS homosexuals. What also needs to be handled carefully is the matter of guilt. Again, I am glad to see Elder Hafen working in a good direction with it. At the same time I cannot tell you how many people I have talked to who tried going to Evergreen International, or similar groups, only to be fed a steady diet of shame and guilt because they hadn't "changed" yet, and therefore must not be doing what they should. (This guilt based shaming and accusations of sin based on not achieving predetermined results is something I have personally experienced in the LDS culture even beyond the issues of sexuality.)

What I do see that needs to happen more is helping the people accept, at a basic level, that they are homosexual. I have never seen a homosexual person I would say is emotionally healthy who has not addressed their sexual orientation maturely and accepted it as an aspect of them-self, regardless of whether they live a homosexual or heterosexual life. And notice, I said "aspect" of them-self, not their entire make up. I found Elder Hafen's use of the parable of the dogs rather interesting. While I understand the point he is trying to make, it is a poor parable for what is being discussed. Aspects of one's self do very poorly when ignored. Starving a part of the psyche only makes it lash out, demanding attention, almost always in unhealthy ways. Each part of one's psyche needs to be addressed and nourished appropriately. What also needs to be faced by the individual, therapists, religions, and society in general is the very complexity of the issue of sexuality. As much as the discussion revolves around the dichotomy of heterosexual or homosexual, the reality is there is a great amount of variety in the way sexual orientation goes. The most basic step is to consider how much a person may be bisexual. Often I have seen people who are actually very evenly bisexual get too focused on the homosexual side of their attractions. This can even block the heterosexual aspects of their attraction.

Elder Hafen is right that the APA recently adopted a resolution stating that there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether or not sexual orientation can be changed. I currently am being treated by a therapist, A. Lee Beckstead, Ph.D., who was part of the task force to review the APA's stance on the appropriate therapeutic responses to sexual orientation, including therapy to change sexual orientation. He also did one of what I consider one of the best studies regarding people who go through groups like Evergreen International. Again, the task force, through its research and interviews, found a number of things, some of which I have already covered.

People seeking to work with a therapist must make sure the therapist is ethical in how they treat the patient and how they go about the work. Some points that are very important, and issues I see Elder Hafen falling very short on in his talk, is to make sure the person is clear about goals, methods, and purpose of the therapy. For example, the therapist and client must be clear about what they mean by trying to "change" orientation. If it is simply working out how to live a heterosexual life, while still being attracted to the same sex, then the therapist may be able to tell the client that result is possible. However, if the client wants to completely change their orientation, no longer experiencing attraction to the same sex while experiencing strong attraction to the opposite sex, that result probably will not occur. I personally find Evergreen International and LDS approaches very unethical in that they are so predetermined in goals, methods, and purpose in the treatment they provide and information they share/dispense to those seeking help.

Another very important issue for the therapist to help the client with is views regarding what it means to be gay or lesbian. Many who seek change have a very skewed view about what it is to live as an out homosexual. Speaking from personal experience and people I know, the usual "media popular" version of being gay is not appealing or is downright disgusting to many. Most men I know don't have a desire to go around in assless chaps and have anonymous sex in public restrooms (as an example). The sad reality is many who seek reparative therapy and go to groups like Evergreen International think this is the only option they really have if they accept their sexual orientation. This is perhaps one of the greatest issues with Elder Hafen's talk and much that I hear coming from LDS church leaders and groups like Evergreen International. There is a subtlety to their rhetoric about "giving in or give up" and "succumbing" to the "gay lifestyle" (I am glad to see Elder Hafen at least put it in plural, "lifestyles"). Every time I hear it said there is a sense that there is only the option of giving in to a life of debauchery. This is not to say it isn't out there. I have seen the edge of it, but I hope as the great variety of gay men and lesbian women become more noticed in society people will realize that just because they are homosexual doesn't mean they must live their lives according to a stereotype.

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