The topic of counselling for those who experience unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction has recently been discussed in the news with a debate on such therapy for minors in California. I thought I’d share my thoughts and limited experience with this field of counseling.
Disclaimer: I am not employed in the counseling field, and my opinions are my own, based on my very limited exposure to such therapy. I invite readers and other Northern Lights bloggers to follow up on this post by sharing their experiences and expertise on the topic.
Counseling for those who experience unwanted homosexual feelings can go by many different names including change therapy, conversion therapy, reparative therapy, or sexual reorientation therapy. All of these names are potentially problematic because they enter the realm of politically charged language. I think it is unwise for anyone, patient or therapist, to suggest that such forms of counseling can lead to a reorientation sexual feelings or to convert someone from being gay to being straight. For this reason, I find that the “Ex-Gay Movement” is either poorly named or entirely misdirected. However, that does not mean that “change” is not possible. I think that the value of such counseling is the potential to help the patient feel more whole and to learn how to reconcile one’s sexual attractions with one’s religious and moral standards. Indeed, regardless of one’s sexual orientation, all people have the potential to change themselves and more fully align their desires with God’s.
I’d like to discuss four forms of “change” therapy: online discussion groups, face-to-face support groups, experiential weekends, and patient-therapist counseling session.
ONLINE DISCUSSION GROUPS
In truth, this is the only form of therapy with which I have any substantial experience. As a returned missionary more than a decade ago, I stumbled upon an online support group for Jewish and Christian men who experienced unwanted same-sex attraction. I was very grateful for the group because I was only just beginning to admit that I had homosexual feelings (and pretty much zero heterosexual feelings), and I felt a great deal of shame and secrecy about this. The online group allowed me to stay anonymous, but also ask some desperate questions about how to cope with those feelings.
The group had it’s pros and cons. I liked the anonymity (I was disgusted with my attraction and could not bear the thought that anyone I knew might discover my “problem”), and the online nature also enabled men from many locations (and from many different walks of life) to participate. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the group lacked direction, so it was difficult to feel as though participation in the group led to personal progression since the same basic issues would get rehashed everytime a new member joined (which was often several times per week). Also, as one group member described it, posting to the online email group was like crying out for help in a darken room; the speaker didn’t know who was listening, and had difficulty keeping track of the conversants.
Amid these highs and lows, a small group of regular posters decided to branch off into their own group. They wanted to keep the support of the online discussion group, but wanted to improve the focus and communication of the group. As someone who posted fairly regularly, I was invited by the “renegades” to join their new group. I was much younger than the other members of this new group, but I felt very positive about my personal growth via this group. The new group rotated the role of discussion leader who chose a topic for the weekly discussion and encouraged the other members to discussion related questions. From what I remember, topics included body image, relationships with family members, interactions with other men, and other issues related to male identity and the disconnect many group members felt between their ideal self and their current self-image. Although several of the other group members had participated in reparative therapy counseling, I don’t ever remember the focus of the group being on “converting to heterosexuality.” The group did not increase my heterosexual feelings, but it helped me resolve my frustration with gay attractions, and I also learned to release my feelings of despair in relation to God and religion.
After a few years as a participant in this small group, I moved overseas where I had limited internet connectivity. I parted from the group feeling that I had grown tremendously. It was not that I was more “straight” but I felt more complete as a man and as an adult.
About a year later, I discovered an online discussion group for BYU students who experienced same-sex attraction. Still having some questions about how to resolve my gay feelings with my LDS values, I joined the group and was relieved to discover that I was not the only returned missionary who dealt with same-sex attractions. Much like the large discussion group I had previously participated in, the BYU-SSA group did not have a clear focus, and it often felt hit or miss whether any productive discussion happened during a week. I was also disappointed to discover that not all members of the group were committed to living gospel standards. Although I left the group after several months, I did make some lasting friendships with a few men I met through the group.
FACE-TO-FACE SUPPORT GROUPS
Not long after participating in the BYU-SSA online group, I moved to a region with a high LDS population, and, as a result, a high LDS-SSA population. Being new to the area, I didn’t know many people, so I decided to try joining a face-to-face support group for LDS men who experienced unwanted homosexual attractions. Unlike with the online support groups, it was not possible to remain anonymous with a face-to-face group, so I was initially relieved when I arrived at my first meeting and did not recognize anyone as a coworkers or ward member.
I only tried out the support group for a couple weeks. To be honest, the meetings made me sad. It was depressing to see married, adult men, some who were twice my age, dealing with issues that they had been struggling with for decades. It made me think, “Is this what I have to look forward to in life? Having to check in with a “pornography/masturbators anonymous” group each week for the rest of my life? Is this what it means to be LDS and live with SSA?”
As for the other young men in the group, they seemed to be struggling with depression (in addition to unwanted SSA) or they seemed to be at the meetings only out of a sense of guilt for having violated the law of chastity weeks or months previous. Perhaps some people find these sorts of meetings to be uplifting, but I found them to be depressing. Despite that, I am grateful that I gave it a try. I think that, for years, I had a lingering question in the back of my mind: “When will I be normal? When will I know that I can start living my life and forget about being gay?”
Attending those meetings helped me to realize that it was silly to put my life on hold until I was “fixed.” I had already healed so many wounds and misperceptions (about myself and about God), but there would never be a point where I would magically be different. I *had* changed, bit by bit over the years, but I think there was still a part of me that wanted an assurance that I would no longer be gay. I finally realized that such a goal was misguided and unnecessary. What mattered was that I was a happy, functional adult was could make a commitment to living the gospel. I’m not sure what motivated those other men to attend those weekly meetings, but I decided that I already had what I wanted.
Because I still hadn’t made any friends in my new location, I still hung out socially with a few men from the support group even after I decided to stop attending the meetings. A couple of these men were strongly involved in the reparative therapy culture. In addition to one-on-one counseling with a licensed therapist, and consuming massive amounts of ex-gay materials, they also participated in “experiential weekend retreats” that were designed to help men, who suffered from unwanted same-sex attraction, to heal emotional wounds and improve their male self-identity.
These men spoke quite highly of their retreat experience and their subsequent post-retreat support group. I was even invited to attend one of these meetings, but found it to be even more unpleasant that the previous support group I had attended. What I noticed is that men who attended these weekends developed what seemed like a new vocabulary for discussing their feelings, their relationships, and even the actions and motives of everyone around them. The specialized language and retreat-fueled attitudes was worrisome to me.
It seemed as though these men had convinced themselves that they had long been rejected by the male world, and so, in an effort to heal those wounds, they had created their own new male world (complete with a new vocabulary and set of rigid philosophies governing emotional expression) that helped them feel they were now a part of the male world. Except that, from my perspective, they weren’t part of the male world; they were just part of this specialized retreat-group male world that didn’t look or act like any male world I had even been involved in. To be frank, I found it kind of creepy and sad. I admit that even though I have never felt any desire to participate in these forms of therapy, they may be very helpful to some men. I decided I would rather spend my time interacting with the men in my workplace and my Elders Quorum rather than these groups of broken-but-now-empowered men.
ONE-ON-ONE COUNSELING SESSIONS
Like experiential weekends, I have never tried patient-therapist counseling sessions, so what gives me the right to even comment on it? None. Except that sometimes the friends of someone who is seeking counseling can see the experience differently than the patient, and the friends’ perspective are an additional voice to consider when evaluating methods of counseling.
In particular, I would like to comment on the experiences of a few of my SSA friends who sought one-on-one counseling from well-known therapists who focus exclusively on young LDS men who want to get rid of same-sex attraction. These friends (or their parents) spent a lot of money this therapy, and were even encouraged by their therapists to continue telephone sessions long-distance when these friends moved out-of-state. I never saw any noticeable difference in my friends’ behavior. I admit that much of what therapy may deal with is not easily observed and may take years to resolve, but my impression was that this therapy was leading these young men along with the implied promise of “change” but with no measurable results. As an observer, I could not see my friend gaining anything from these counseling session that they couldn’t gain through reading or attending free support groups.
In reviewing the above paragraphs, I pondered, “What is my point? What do I want to add to the conversation?” I think there are a couple take-aways:
1) It is unhelpful for someone to enter a counseling situation with the goal of replacing homosexual attraction with heterosexual attraction. Such a goal may be unattainable, and may cause frustration and despair for those who are not able to find the “change” they seek. Instead, I think it is better to view therapy as a means of healing one’s sense of identity and of resolving conflict between one’s gay feelings and one’s family/religion/society. Having gay feelings and being a happy, successful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a realistic and worthy end-goal.
2) Based on my own experience, change therapy does not need to be expensive nor does it need to involve devoting one’s life entirely to the cause or to a new social group. In fact, I would think that those who are most happy about their progress in relation to their same-sex feelings are those men and women who do NOT immerse themselves in the culture of ex-gay groups. If the goals is to become a happy, whole person, then there is a danger is spending so much of one’s social time with others who are feel that they suffer from the same problems.
I imagine that my biased impressions of these counseling options are likely to be met with a range of opinions. If you feel offended my anything I have written, please know that it is not intended. At the same time, I am reminded of a story I heard about a pastor who conducted a couple’s therapy group for members of his congregation. At the end of the retreat, he said, “If any of you have felt offended by anything I have said over the course of this weekend…get over it!”
I welcome and encourage Northern Lights readers and bloggers to continue the discussion.