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My Take: Let's protect religious counselors amid 'conversion therapy' debate
December 11th, 2012
02:35 PM ET

My Take: Let's protect religious counselors amid 'conversion therapy' debate

Editor's note: Gabe Lyons is author of "The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the World" and founder of the Q, a learning community that mobilizes Christians to advance the common good in society.

By Gabe Lyons, Special to CNN

(CNN)–Can gay people become straight? Is human sexuality modifiable? Are we really still discussing this?

Yes, according to U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb, who ruled last week that three licensed psychotherapists have the right to practice therapy that attempts to change the sexual orientations of gay and lesbian minors.

In a culturally counterintuitive move, he ruled that First Amendment rights of mental health professionals who engage in "reparative" or "conversion" therapy outweigh concern that the practice poses a danger to their clients. This ruling, albeit temporary, adds a new plank to the debate over gay rights, traditional American liberties and what constitutes good therapy.

At the heart of the controversy over sexual behavior modification is the idea that same-sex attraction is not a permanent and inborn condition but rather an aberration that's often rooted in childhood trauma. As Erik Eckholm of The New York Times writes, “Homosexuality is caused, (conversion) therapists say, by a stifling of normal masculine development, often by distant fathers and overbearing mothers or by early sexual abuse.”

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Today, of course, providers of this persuasion tend to be outcast into the wilderness of the discredited. Most agree that those who once practiced masturbatory reconditioning and genital shock therapy have no place in modern psychology and psychiatry.

But what the Shubb ruling tried to do is carve out space for the non-crazies, the still controversial but credible practitioners who want to help patients who desire to do so to understand the nature of their sexual identity and expression within a larger religious framework. It's a framework that, in its fullest conception, contains psychological appreciation that is at once deeper, more supple and more holistic than the reductive sexual identity assumptions that anchor mere sexual therapy, be it one of conversion or acceptance. If a client asks for help, why would we tie the hands of a professional counselor to provide whatever help they can?

Therapists from this tradition accept that same-sex attraction is not merely a flip-the-switch choice but rather an individual-specific, complex issue that must acknowledge the mysterious interplay between nature and nurture. Because their faith dictates that adherents strive toward a particular sexual ethic - one that confines sexual relations to those between a husband and wife and requires celibacy in all other circumstances - they seek to help patients manage sexual impulses through “cognitive behavioral change.”

Few of these therapists promise that gay and lesbian patients will emerge from their programs “straight.” Rather, they seek to provide guidance, counsel and tools to help reframe desire, its nature and its ends. Such therapy exists to help clients understand the place of their sexuality in the broader conception of who they are.

For example, some Christian therapists might help a client who believes that they are made in the image of God explore what role sexuality ought to play in understanding their full identity: Is it everything, nothing or a piece of the greater whole? These conversations may lead a client to decide how dominant of a role sexual desire will play in their life. Others might counsel a client to abstain entirely from sexual relations. But in doing so, the therapist would seek to help the client find fulfillment, identity and purpose outside of romantic or sexual relationships. There is a long tradition of Christians - from priests to nuns to laypeople - who have chosen celibacy as a higher calling toward spiritual fulfillment.

Whether you like conversion therapy - or these particular outcomes - isn’t the point. Protecting the religious rights of providers who help patients make sense of their sexuality in light of faith is fundamental. And these rights are under attack. Just last week, four gay men filed a civil suit in New Jersey against a prominent counseling group who provided a form of conversion therapy, charging it with deceptive practices under the state's Consumer Fraud Act. If other states follow California's initial ruling, restrictions on religious-based therapy could become the norm.

Gay activists deplore the existence of such options, claiming that it shames patients and represses their natural desires. Yet proponents of civil liberties support it, believing the greater threat is limiting a client's right or the religious therapist’s ability to administer sound judgment in full integrity as she helps her client achieve his/her goals.

Conflicts like this are likely to keep the debate hot and fractured. Here are three big reasons the LGBTQ community may continue to oppose the rights of clients and religious-based therapists and why the religious community must persevere:

Allowing “conversion” therapy to go forward acknowledges that change is possible.

The roots of sexual attraction are hotly debated in both the scientific and psychiatric communities. No one has discovered a “gay gene,” and neither has anyone proved that same-sex attraction can be credited solely to nature and not also nurture. Research and opinions on the matter are evolving.

Credible therapists do not claim that sexual-orientation change therapy turns people into ex-gay, happily married heterosexuals. Although some who participate in this type of therapy do not experience the full transformation they hoped for, others claim conversion therapy helped them achieve the results they sought.

Dr. Nicholas Cummings, a former president of the American Psychological Association, stated, “In my twenty years at Kaiser Permanente Health Maintenance Organization, 67 percent of the homosexuals who sought help from therapists for issues such as ‘the transient nature of relationships, disgust or guilt feelings about promiscuity, fear of disease, (and) a wish to have a traditional family’ experienced various levels of success obtaining their goals.

“In some cases … individuals who initiated therapy not seeking to change their sexual orientation, actually did so through the process of working through other psychological issues,” he said.

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Everyone possesses attributes we’d like to change: behaviors, character qualities, temptation patterns. Therapy, of all kinds, can help us stare those down and create the life we desire to live. Some may learn to accept these attributes and even embrace their greater purpose, while others seek to minimize or eliminate that characteristic.

If someone is distressed over his or her sexuality, they deserve the opportunity to explore the distress in a safe, well-resourced space. It is up to the individual and the therapist to gauge how that process will best happen.

If altering sexual orientation is possible, the “born this way” ideology has to face a trickier reality.

Acceptance of sexual behavior modification presents a difficult challenge to the gay movement. Much of the ideology surrounding the civil rights defense is built on the premise that sexuality is inextricably tied to identity, just as a person’s race, gender or country of origin is. Thus, because sexuality is assumed to be an inborn trait, it requires civil rights protection. Anything else would be unjust.

To suggest that sexual orientation may be intertwined with nurture, trauma, experience or desire is to complicate the victories the LGBTQ community has won using this civil rights argument. But to ignore these mysteries not only undignifies that community, it limits another constitutionally protected class: the religious.

So we must learn to make room for both religious freedom and personal choice. The LGBTQ community can still fight for the rights it desires while conceding that not every person with same-sex attraction is at peace with their sexuality.

It may not agree with the ways an individual may seek to resolve those tensions, but the gay rights movement must respect individuals’ decisions to pursue their own paths.

In the same way, religious leaders who oppose gay rights must accept that gay Americans are afforded the same religious liberty protections. Human sexuality is a complicated spiritual, psychological and physical issue. Everyone — gay or straight — as minors or adults, deserves the right to wrestle with their sexuality in the manner most appropriate to their needs. Saying so shouldn’t become an impediment to civil rights.

Limiting choice for anyone seeking personal change restricts a fundamental human right.
Any person seeking change — whether behavioral, relational, physical, sexual or emotional — has a fundamental right to pursue it. This must remain a basic freedom for both a licensed therapist and her client to explore all possible options in the privacy and confidentiality of their relationship.

We all have friends or family members who have experienced sexual or psychological childhood trauma. This is a reality for both gay and straight individuals, and such trauma often shapes one’s view of life and the world. While not every individual or family would choose to pursue therapy that is open to the idea of questioning the innate good of one’s sexual impulses, it is a valid avenue to help adults, teenagers and families seek understanding, gain clarity and take action to live in alignment with their values.

In the same way that this therapy should not be forced on anyone, it should also not be forcibly removed. Doing so goes against our Declaration’s insistence on every American’s right to “the pursuit of happiness” and a parent’s right to help his/her child.

Any debate touching on issues of sexuality is complicated, emotional and intensely personal. But each one presents an opportunity for each of us to wrestle with how best to live alongside one another, despite deep differences. Instead of treating these debates as zero-sum games where the winner takes all, we should fight to protect the rights and opportunities for each citizen to seek out truth and wholeness. Because if that freedom goes, so do the rest.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gabe Lyons.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Homosexuality

soundoff (391 Responses)
  1. Tracy

    Sure, if people can offer "past lives therapy" then I supposed you can offer this sort of therapy. You don't have to give accreditation to the counselor, but sure, they can do this.

    The question is, can you make your child go through it, when there is no scientific evidence for it, and it may in fact be damaging? It is the same question for all cults. When does the state step in and stop you from destroying your child, and when does it allow a parent to teach their kid whatever goofiness they like.

    August 20, 2013 at 8:00 am |
  2. Jerry

    Excellent article! Thank you!

    March 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  3. Aaron

    While adults have the freedom to enter conversion therapy if they so choose, I feel as though they should be told upfront by the person doing the therapy that it is neither 100% successful, nor necessarily healthy. Many individuals who go through gay to straight therapy do not come out the other side straight, rather with tools that simply help them repress their desires. People need to know the risks associated with this type of therapy.

    January 15, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  4. Hankh

    I don't think the people who are attacking this article got the point. Religious freedom. It is extremely unbiased and more restrained than most Christian articles and viewpoints would be. I think what gay activists don't understand is that not everybody has the same viewpoint as they do. Some people feel convicted about religious belief. So let them choose. The very movement that championed equality for all has fallen to hypocrisy. They want to be left alone to make their own personal decisions about life, so why are they restricting the rights of others? YoU

    December 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I would agree with you when we're talking about adults, but we need to use great caution in dealing with any medical treatments for minors. We can't simply say "anything goes" or you'll have people sacrificing goats for their kid while avoiding chemo. For minors we have to use science based methodologies.

      December 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  5. drbob66

    Why do we keep protecting religious people's rights to cause harm to others in the name of their God?

    December 29, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  6. tom-ay

    I'm all for getting the help one THINKS they need, however, kids should not be subject to this type of conversion... i mean, let's say for the sake of argument we wanted our kid to be gay, can we send him/her away to counseling to make them gay? Doesn't really work that way... this is just wrong... and ADULTS can seek that 'help' but leave the kids alone while they figure things out...

    December 24, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  7. kevobx

    *1st John 2:22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. *2nd John 9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hast not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. *3rd John 11 Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.

    December 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • tom-ay

      sorry I am a wickin, this makes no sense to me, but I don't need to be a religious person to know that being a jerk is a bad thing.

      December 24, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  8. kevobx

    Will America armed all the inner city schools? The black man who has a masters and is considered a scholar, do they get guns also? Mankind is the Lord of hosts, always hosting. *Malachi 2:12 The Lord will cut the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the Lord of hosts. *Revelation 13:8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

    December 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  9. kevobx

    Mankind own devices is killing off the world, to keep all the proud people brainwashed into the matrix. (*Numbers 3:12*) Little children have the internet at their fingertips. The no man hates grace and truth which is Christ himself. God is he, odd 1. Satan is him even, strange. God is righteous. Satan is holy. God is rest. Satan is peace. God thy Father. Satan is the father of lies. Who art thou? Thou is the white man who loves art. Who painted a red portrait of Christ and hung it on their walls? No man will answer to that. Esau red is everywhere in the world. Find your heritage or be spiritually dead, always asking why.

    December 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  10. kevobx

    Mankind loves taking pleasure in the death of the wicked, why? The first murderer was Cain, and the world still glorifies him today by saying Am I my brother's keeper. Idolatry kills the spirit into darkness, the cultural world is hooked into pride as a yoke for untruths. Talk to the living for answers, Dna is from one's family tree, their parents / siblings. The Most High is the living God he has all the answers! The entire world is afraid of grace and truth, why? Because they are ashamed, and Fear God secretly. See how the devil flees from it. Love truth, hate opinions.

    December 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Alger Dave

    Great piece. Regardless of your stance on the issue, it's hard to argue that keeping therapy from someone who wants it is in their best interests and society's best interests. But that's what CA has done, and certainly other states will soon be considering. The LGBT community has the momentum, and they are now apparently interested in steamrolling the rights of others who stand in the way of their message – 'don't question us'. How ironic that a group seeking new rights for themselves is so bent on taking rights away from others. Whereas the evangelical community was once asked by the LGBT community – what are you afraid of? – evangelicals now ask the same question back...

    December 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • End Religion

      Talibangelicals wouldn't have the slightest idea what is best for others.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  12. ConnectedStrides

    Chosing a child counselor is a very serious decision.
    Another source to help:
    Connected Strides offers individual therapy for children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Asperger's Disorder, and Regulation and Sensory Integration Disorder.
    http://www.connectedstrides.com

    December 14, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  13. Arvoasitis

    P.e.d.e.r.a.s.t.y w.a.s the s.t.a.n.d.a.r.d p.r.a.c.t.i.c.e in a.n..c.i.e.n.t Sparta. If you look up 'The True Story B.e.h.i.n.d 3.0.0 and Sparta's "S.u.p.e.r S.o.l.d.i.e.r.s,"' for one of any n.u.m.b.e.r of s.o.u.r.c.e.s, you will find ".... young boys were also i.n.d.o.c.t.r.i.n.a.t.e.d into p.e.d.e.r.a.s.t.y - s.e.x.u.a. r.e.l.a.t.i.o.ns with their m.e.n.t.o..rs."
    E.v.e.n the Spartan marriage cere.mony was o.d.d. The bride's hair was c.r.o.p.p.e.d and she was d.r.e.s.s.e.d as a boy. The wedding ceremony was followed by a s.i.m.u.l.a.t.ed r.a.p.e, after which the the c.o.u.p.l.e did not l.i.v.e t.o.g.e.t.h.e.r; the h.u.s.b.a.n.d l.i.v.e.d with his m.a.l.e c.o.m.p.a.n.i.o.n.s.
    Since Sparta s.u.c.c.e.e.d.e.d in t.u.r.n.i.n.g n.o.r.m.a.l (m.o.s.t.l.y p.r.e.s.u.m.a.b.l.y "s.t.r.a.i.g.h.t") m.a.l.e.s into h.o.m.o.s.e.x.u.a.l.s, if h.o.m.o.s.e.x.u.a.l m.a.l.e.s c.a.n.n.o.t be c.o.n.v.e.r.t.e.d to h.e.t.er.o.s.e.x.u.a.l.s, doesn't that s.u.g.g.e.s.t that h.o.m.o.s.e.xuality is a d.i.s.o.r.d.e.r?

    December 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Xenophon, Plutarch, and Aristotle all agree you're full of sh!t.

      December 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • gary

      "Since Sparta s.u.c.c.e.e.d.e.d in t.u.r.n.i.n.g n.o.r.m.a.l (m.o.s.t.l.y p.r.e.s.u.m.a.b.l.y "s.t.r.a.i.g.h.t") m.a.l.e.s into h.o.m.o.s.e.x.u.a.l.s,"

      That's the stupidest thing I think I've ever read on here. What a childish notion. S exual slave practice among ancients is a far cry from "turning" anyone into anything.

      December 14, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Arvoasitis

      You cannot change reality by wishing it to be different. It was the freeborn in Sparta who were subjected to the brutal discipline and se.xual indignities. Of course, it wasn't much better being a slave (helot) - the young men honed their killing skills by practicing on them. As for Aristotle, he's the one who claimed women are subhuman, as incapable of reasoned thought as an acorn is of becoming a butterfly or philosopher, never dreaming that one day most of the people studying his works in the universities would be female.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • gary

      Arv – you are a complete idiot by suggesting that any behavior dictated by slavery indicates that said behavior is a disorder. It is like saying anyone who serves gra pes has a disorder because under slavery their master were successfully able to force them to serve gra pes. You seem to have a sick agenda – I think we know who has a disorder here.

      December 14, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  14. John Summers

    Ok then Mr. Storyteller. And I believe it to be nothing but a farce. How about the teenagers whose right wing family forced them into therapy against there will? And please... don't play stupid and say it doesnt happen.
    I believe that if a therapist does harm to their patient in a provable way in a court of law, they should be allowed to sue the hell out of them. We should not protect them. If they are following legally recognized practices under state and federal laws, then they shouldn't have to worry about lawsuits. If however they are doing religiously recognized but not legally recognized practices, then I believe they are directly at fault. Its according to the situation.

    December 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • John Summers

      And remember.... we have laws that call for the separation of Church and State... not the integration. The state cannot sanction a religious practice that is not based in legal practice. I think thats going to be the main issue.

      December 13, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Kealnt

      John who is the state of California, you or I to tell someone that they cant seek help for something about themselves that they do not like? Dont you think that they should have equal rights to live their life as they want? They wouldnt be hurting anyone if they got help? What is it to you? I have heard testimony from those who were "forced" into the lifestyle and by their own admission lost and looking to get out for decades but it was all they knew and it began as young as 12 or younger. They identified with the lifestyle for decades and then after a tough process they were able to change and be complete and happy. Who are we to deny them that chance and right of self determiniation?

      December 17, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  15. Ben

    This situation is exactly like that surrounding female circu mcision, with only some religious people claiming that it's sanctioned by their faith while the rest all denounce it.

    It's interesting that both forms of circu mcision can trace their roots to ancient Egypt. I wonder if the Jews didn't start the male practice for the same reason; controlling the urges of their boys and men?

    December 13, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Akira

      Female circ umcision is to make sure the female gets no pleasure at all from s e x, so they won't be "tempted" by men other than their husbands, and to subjugate females even further.
      (This custom doesn't make their husbands very tempting, either, but that's a different discussion.)
      It is done on very young girls, before they even have the urge *to* have s e x.
      Many times it isn't in relation to religion, but tribal and communal customs; since they are cutting off the c l i t o r i s, they are rendering the female largely incapable of pleasure...male circu mcision doesn't do that.
      Males still derive pleasure from a circ umsised penis.

      December 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.