Science and Homosexuality
Science and Homosexuality: A Rejoinder (unedited version)
Ted Packard, Kay Packard, & Ron Schow
Dean Byrd, the lead author of a recent Tribune op ed piece (Homosexuality: The Innate-Immutability Argument….May 27, 2001) is a licensed psychologist who has been heavily involved in reparative therapy for homosexuals along the Wasatch front for the past decade. His primary employment is within a faith
To our knowledge Byrd has not been involved in any genetic research. Yet, unfortunately, he along with his two therapist/social work co-authors offers to the general public a superficial critique of genetic research related to homosexual orientation. In their eagerness to claim that science has not proven a genetic basis for homosexuality, Byrd, Cox and Robinson misinterpret the research they purport to analyze and use selective quotations in a fashion that belies the scientific objectivity they claim. The beliefs espoused by Byrd and his associates seem based more on their a priori views of the matter than on the relevant scientific literature.
In fact, the argument presented by Byrd and his associates is to some extent self-contradictory, since these three authors, and virtually everyone else, admit that “homosexual attraction, like many other strong attractions, includes both biological and environmental influences.” Their commentary on genetic research (is homosexual attraction innate?) distracts the reader from the far more important issue of whether homosexual attraction can be altered (are same sex attractions immutable?) The latter question is a subject on which these authors might be expected to have some germane data, but alas they offer none.
This is the second op Ed piece on homosexuality by Byrd published in the Tribune in less than a year’s time and in both the conclusion is drawn that “…homosexual attractions can be diminished and that changes can be made.” Thoughtful readers will be struck by the vagueness of this assertion. “Diminished” how, and to what degree? Exactly what kinds of “changes?”
Bryd and his associates have been promoting the same message in religious publications and elsewhere and yet one finds it curious that they provide here no scientific evidence of change based on their own therapeutic work. Unfortunately, because this is a field about which the general public is ill informed, they are successfully getting out their message and having an enormous influence. Their theories about change of sexual orientation are accepted as fact by many church leaders, by some professional counselors, and
by some homosexuals and their family members.
Over the past decade Byrd and a number of his associates have worked with hundreds and hundreds of homosexual clients, and yet to date they have produced no comprehensive summary of their work, even as they continue to promise change. In a published article (Nicolosi, Byrd, and Potts[another Utahn], 2000, Psychological Reports, Vol. 86, pp. 1071-1088) only 79 LDS subjects are included in a sample of 869 “successful” reparative clients based on a highly selected nationwide sample. This raises questions on the outcome for hundreds of other LDS clients treated by Byrd and the extensive network of therapists who are following his lead. Even on this most successful group of clients, the overall numbers reveal that 84% report that they continue to experience same-sex attractions. Furthermore, the 16% who reported their homosexual attractions have ceased, must also be considered tentative because no systematic outcome data were reported at, say, one or five years post therapy.
These dubious claims of change do enormous harm to homosexuals. For the argument goes, if homosexuality can be changed, if homosexuals can be made into heterosexuals, then those who refuse to change are deliberately going against religious and therapeutic counsel. The bogus claims for change
therapy are used to label homosexuals as willful sinners, to brand their sexual behavior as perverted, and to deny them equal rights. These claims cause families to reject their homosexual members and religious organizations to excommunicate those who act on their homosexual feelings. And homosexuals end up being judged based on the supposition that change is possible if one wants it badly enough.
The situation would be viewed far differently if everyone understood that most individuals dealing with persistent same-sex attraction really do not have a choice that will allow them to experience generalized heterosexual feelings or arousal. Only a few with bisexual attractions might be placed in that category.
Even though Byrd, Cox and Robinson report no data on their reparative therapy practice in their op Ed piece, the more accurate truth about reparative therapy is gradually coming to light. Interested readers should consult material on change therapy at (LDSFamilyFellowship.org). Furthermore, two recently completed University of Utah doctoral dissertations speak directly to the topic. (See Beckstead, 2001, “The process toward self-acceptance and self-identity of individuals who underwent sexual reorientation therapy,” and Bryzezinski, 2000, “…Identity development of same-sex attracted/gay men raised in the [LDS] church….”)
The Beckstead study is an extensive analysis of fifty LDS clients of reparative therapy over a four year period. Two large subgroups within these clients were examined: those who felt they benefited from the therapy and those who believed they had been harmed. Several important and alarming findings emerge from this work:
1. Participants from both groups acknowledged that, in spite of their reparative therapy, they were not able to modify their tendency to be attracted to their same sex and did not experience any substantial or
generalized heterosexual arousal. Some reported an ability to manage their attractions to a greater degree, but the feelings did NOT disappear. This fundamental finding suggests that persons can temporarily ignore, suppress, or manage their same sex attractions, but deep inside, such feelings and vulnerabilities are still present and do not change or disappear. In short, LDS clients, many of whom are from our local area, are testifying to the “immutability” that Byrd, Cox and Robinson deny. For those individuals who claimed benefit, their sense of peace and contentment did not indicate a change in sexual orientation per se but a change in self-acceptance, self-identity, focus, and behavioral management patterns.
2. Participants in both samples reported they had expected marriage to help them experience heterosexual arousal and cause their same-sex attractions to diminish and ultimately disappear. Despite having strong
homosexual attractions, these persons reported that they were encouraged by therapy outcome claims and by church and societal expectations to marry. One of the harms reported is the effect that false hopes of sexual reorientation had on their spouses and families. The great majority of their marriages were troubled and often failed with tragic results.
3. Simplistic promises of change led many of those in therapy to experience despair and to believe that when they could not change, then they were somehow to blame for the failure. They believed (often along with family and church members) that they had not tried hard enough. These participants seemed to internalize their continual failures, and any lack of progress contributed to their self-loathing, lowered self-esteem, and hopelessness, which resulted in several attempted suicides with EACH group after treatment.
A pernicious aspect of the Byrd, Cox, and Robinson article is the suggestion that high rates of suicide, mental illness, depression, and anxiety disorder among homosexuals, are the result, not of societal treatment, but of living a homosexual life style, thus attributing further blame to already vulnerable individuals. No scientific or therapeutic evidence is offered for this assertion.
Until Byrd and others like him who are so convinced of the viability of their reparative therapy can demonstrate from their own practice the validity of their claims in professionally juried publications, they should cease advocating a form of therapy based on the illusion that fundamental change in sexual orientation is possible for all or most of the gay population. While reparative therapy may help a minority to suppress homosexual feelings and related behaviors, it has had an especially deleterious effect on the many while producing so little real change for the few. In contrast, therapy which is designed to help homosexuals make healthy choices, but not expect change, is increasingly available at university clinics, local mental health agencies, and from various therapists in this area.
It is ironic that the authors raise the issue of morality in regard to therapy for homosexuals when the foundation for their practice is so questionable. The real moral question here is the extent to which we should be rolling the dice with people’s lives in the absence of any substantial evidence that homosexuals
can change their fundamental sexual orientation.
We acknowledge that all of the truth on homosexuality is not yet in, and yet based on the extant research, therapeutic practice, and real life experience of the vast majority of people working in this field, the overwhelming evidence is that reparative therapy has not delivered on its promise of fundamental change and that, in fact, negative treatment outcomes are a regular occurrence.
We believe that open discussion and public dialogue is badly needed on this important and frequently misunderstood topic. We would be pleased to be involved in any such discussions.
Ted Packard is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Utah, a board certified counseling psychologist, and current president of the American Board of Professional Psychology. His current research includes work on issues associated with homosexuality.
Kay Packard is a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Brigham Young University. She has worked with a number of clients, including some couples and families which, at times, have included a homosexual member.
Ron Schow has a degree in Zoology with a minor in Psychology from Utah State University. He is currently Professor of Audiology in the College of Health Professions at Idaho State University where he has a special research focus in therapy outcome measures for clients with hearing loss.