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since June 19, 2001


Dale's Web Pages

Changing a client's sexual orientation



Dale O'Leary

Gay activists within and outside the mental health field are engaged in a systematic attack on religion. The gay activists argue that heterosexism -- the belief that heterosexuality is healthy and normal -- is a bigoted prejudice, perhaps even a symptom of the mental illness -- homophobia. At the very least homonegativism is a unjustifiable prejudice that must be eliminated from society and from the churches. According to this view, the mental health and behavior problems observed among homosexuals are caused by society's pervasive anti-homosexual attitudes. Traditional religious belief that homosexual behavior is sinful cause "internalized homophobia" in homosexually active persons and societal discrimination against homosexually self-identified persons.

According to gay activists, therapy or religious ministries which help clients to change sexual orientation feed on "internalized homophobia" in the clients and negatively effects society should therefore be banned even though the clients want to change and may have reasonably expect a successful outcome. Instead, therapists should be encouraged to tell clients that Christian teaching doesn't condemn homosexual acts, including in non-exclusive relationships.

The following selected material demonstrate the nature of the attack on religion. The discussion began when Throckmorton criticized an article by Wolpe in which Wolpe refused to help a homosexually attracted man work toward developing attractions for women and instead directed his efforts to changing the man's religious beliefs. A number of gay affirming therapists have defended Wolpe and recommended similar actions.

Religious leaders need to recognize how these trends threaten freedom of religion.

Therapist pressures client to change religious beliefs.

Wolpe, J. (1969) The Practice of Behavior Therapy Elmsford, NY: Pergamon

Wolpe did not believe change of orientation was possible. He refused to help the client overcome his homosexuality, because he felt that the client's religious convictions and beliefs were responsible for anxiety and worked to give the client a different religious perspective. By the 6th session the client had come to "see that he had taken sin, particularly in relation to sexuality, too seriously." Wolpe then helped the client use assertive behavior. The client left therapy but later communicated to the therapist that he no longer responded sexually to men. He dated, married and reported a complete shift.

Regards pressuring client to change religious beliefs as unethical.

Throckmorton, W. (1996) Efforts to modify sexual orientation: A review of outcome literature and ethical issues. Journal of Mental Health and Counseling. 20, 4: 283 -305.

Wolpe (1973) ... described the case of a 32-year-old male who had never experienced sexual attraction or relations with women. The man had "formed a succession of attachments to men with whom he had sexual relations." However, he also felt such relations were against his religious belief causing severe anxiety. Wolpe chose to attempt to minimize his religious objections via giving him a book to read. While the client felt some guilt reduction, he still wished to "overcome his homosexuality" Wolpe refused on the basis of a belief in the genetic basis for homosexuality. The client continued in assertiveness training, however, which resulted in significant reduction in anxiety and improvement in job performance. After several months, the man reported to Wolpe that he had become unable to have sex with men and was feeling attracted to a woman. Through the next year, he became sexually active with women and finally married. After a 3-year follow-up, Wolpe described the client's heterosexual sex life as "in every way satisfactory" (p.261).

"Since religion is one of the client attributes that mental health counselors are ethically bound to respect, counselors should take great care in advising those clients dissatisfied with same-gender sexual orientation due to their religious beliefs. To accommodate such clients counselors should develop expertise in methods of sexual reorientation or develop appropriate referral resources." (p. 301)

Defends therapists who encourage "religious reorientation"

Schreier, B. (1998) Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax: The faulty and specious assumptions of sexual reorientation therapies. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. 20, 4: 305 - 314.

"Throckmorton is critical about an article by Wolpe (1973) where Wolpe chose to offer religious reorientation rather than sexual reorientation. Perhaps instead of sexual reorientation, individuals could seek religious reorientation to any number of major U.S. religions that are affirming of people with same-sex orientations.... Not all religions are judgmental and condemning. Advocating for sexual reorientation while being critical of religious reorientation again demonstrates nothing more than bias." (308)

Encourages therapist to challenge client's religion

Barrett, R., Barzan, R. (1996) Spiritual experiences of gay men and lesbians. Counseling and Values. 41: 4 - 15.

"...assisting gay and lesbians to step away from external religious authority may challenge the counselor's own acceptance of religious teachings."(p.8)

".. most counselors will benefit from a model that help them understand the difference between spiritual and religious authority." (p.8)

Religion as a cause of heterosexism and homonegativity

Bohan, J. (1996) Psychology and Sexual Orientation: Coming to Terms. NY: Routledge.

"Religious beliefs and strongly held political ideologies are examples of values. This function might explain the correlation between psychological heterosexism and conservative political beliefs, as well as the relation to religiosity, especially a commitment to conservative religious institutions whose teachings about homophilia are extremely negative. Indeed, the religious arguments for homonegativity is arguably the most powerful force in contemporary social movements to limit gay rights. Also, the frequent finding that homonegativity is correlated with other forms of prejudice may be explicable from this perspective. The cohesiveness of these attitudes suggests that they serve an important function for the individual."

"Homonegative attitudes of this sort may change if the individual recognizes a conflict between this value and another value... attitudes might change if a revered authority, such as a member of the clergy or a biblical scholar, were to present a more positive view of LGB experience, still grounded in religious teaching." (p. 58)

"Diminishing anti-LGB prejudice and discrimination will require institutional as well as individual change."

Criticizes churches for helping members live according to moral teachings

Haldeman, D. (1994) The practice and ethics of sexual orientation conversion therapies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 62: 221 -227.

"Fundamentalist Christian conversion programs hold enormous symbolic power over many people. Possibly exacerbating the harm to naive, shame-ridden counselees, these programs operate under the formidable auspices of the Christian church....

"Such programs seek to divest the individual of his or her 'sinful' feelings or at least to make the pursuit of a heterosexual or celibate lifestyle possible. Their theoretical base is founded on interpretations of scripture that condemn homosexual behavior, their often unspecified treatment methods rely on prayer, and their outcomes are generally limited to testimonials. Nonetheless, these programs bear some passing examinations because of the tremendous psychological impact they have on the many unhappy gay men and lesbians who seek their services and because of some psychologists' willingness to refer to them. Lastly, many such programs have been associated with significant ethical problems.

"Gay men who are most likely to be inclined toward doctrinaire religious practice are also likely to have lower self-concepts, to see homosexuality as more sinful, feel a greater sense of apprehension about negative responses from others, and are more depressed in general. (Weinberg & Williams, 1974) Such individuals make vulnerable targets for the 'ex-gay" ministries..."

Criticizes Later Day Saints (Mormons) stand on homosexuality

Jensen, J. (1999) A Psychiatrist's Response to the Latter Day Saints Social Services National Affirmation Annual Conference.

Review of LDS Social Services document "Understanding and Helping Individuals with Homosexual Problems"

LDS SS document makes "... unqualified and unjustified use of concepts steeped more in the prejudices of Western tradition which date back to the turn of century than in modern social or psychological sciences."

"In order for LDS Social Services to "offer a reparative therapy approach which assumes that homosexual behavior can be changed," they had to leave the mainstream of the mental health professions and shop around for anyone whose own prejudices match those of "the church" no matter how unjustified, antiquated, unscientific, ineffective, harmful and unethical their belief and practices may be. This unfortunate collision has compromised the scientific integrity of LDS Social Services and -- by extension -- the LDS Church; a retreated, closed, propagandistic and anxiety- maintained position which is untenable for a people whose prominent motto is 'the glory of God is intelligence.'"

Guilt and shame induced by society

Martin, A. (1984) The emperor's new clothes: Modern attempts to change sexual orientation. (in Stein, T, Hetrick, E. Innovations in psychotherapy with homosexuals. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press) 24 -57.

"... the patient told that success depends on his or her "motivation" and "choice." In other words, in both therapy and religion, success or failure becomes the responsibility of the patient/believer. Unfortunately, clinicians pay little attention to the tactic's potential for negative outcomes in therapy, particularly for those already burdened with societally induced guilt and shame."


Murphy, T. (1992) Redirecting sexual orientation: Techniques and justifications. Journal of Sex Research. 29: 501- 523.

"There would be no reorientation techniques where there was no interpretation that homoeroticism as an inferior state, an interpretation that in many ways continues to be medically defined, criminally enforced, socially sanctioned, and religiously justified. And it is in this moral interpretation, more than in the reigning medical theory of the day, that all programs of sexual reorientation have their common origins and justifications."(520)

Challenges Christian teaching on homosexuality and on sexual fidelity

Nelson, J. (1982) Religious and moral issues in working with homosexual clients.(in Gonsiorek, J. Homosexuality and Psychotherapy. NY: Haworth) 163

"While strict moral and religious neutrality in psychotherapy is problematic at best, the therapist working with homosexual clients particularly needs clarity about her or his own moral and religious assumptions, together with a knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition on the subject. This article examines the biblical evidence and current theological arguments about homosexuality. Christianity as an incarnational faith is a sex-affirming religion, with positive resources for lesbian and gay men. An analysis of homophobia concludes, maintaining the position that the church as a whole will benefit great from the liberation of gay men and lesbians from oppression."

"I consider 'homosexuality' an abstraction. There is no such thing as 'homosexuality' per se."

"...my own conviction ... that homosexuality is a Christianly valid orientation; that homosexual genital expression should be guided by the same general ethical criteria as are appropriate for heterosexual expression, though with sensitivity to the special situation of an oppressed minority... "

"Given the realities of social oppression, it is insensitive and unfair to judge gay men and lesbians by a heterosexual ideal of the monogamous relationship. ... that other sexual encounters and experiences can have elements of genuine good in them even while falling short of the optimum remains an open possibility."

"For the gay male or lesbian couple who intend a covenant of indefinite duration, will 'fidelity' always mean 'genital exclusivity'? Some such couples (as is true of some heterosexual couples) have explored relationships that admit the possibility of sexual intimacy with secondary partners. For these couples 'infidelity' does not have a simple biological meaning (sex with someone other than the permanent partner). Rather, infidelity means the rupture of the bonds of faithfulness, trust, honesty, and commitment to the partner's well-being and growth, a commitment to the primacy of this covenant over any other relationship. While there are undoubted risks for such a course of action, and while the weight of Christian tradition is on the side of sexual exclusivity, there are also risks when a couple's relationship becomes marked by possessiveness."

"In a word, churches and society both desperately need release from homophobia, that irrational fear of same-sex orientation and expression."

"While some resistance to homosexuality is, to be sure based upon calm and reasoned religious belief... undoubtedly much is based upon unreasoned, ill-understood emotional reactions."


Shidlo, A. (1994) Internalized homophobia: Conceptual and empirical issues.(in Greens, B., Herek, G. Lesbian and Gay Psychology Thousand Oaks CA8/4/99 Sage.)176 - 205.

"... prejudicial attitudes toward gay persons can be a vehicle for expressing cultural or religious values. Other terms such as homonegativism provides a more neutral and inclusive designation for the total universe of negative attitudes toward homosexuality."

Encourages therapist to free clients from guilt over sexual behavior

Silverstein, C. (1972) Behavior Modification and the Gay community. Paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy. NY. Oct.

"To suggest that a person comes voluntarily to change his sexual orientation is to ignore the powerful environmental stress, oppression if you will, that has been telling him for years that he should change... What brings them into counseling is guilt, shame, and the loneliness that comes from their secret. If you really wish to help them freely choose, I suggest you first desensitize them to their guilt. Allow them to dissolve the shame about their desires and actions and to feel comfortable with their sexuality. After that, let them choose, but not before."

Note: In that context it may be of interest to have a look at SAR (Sexual Attitude Restructuring) —WHS

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From Dale's Disk, antirelg.rtf - Dec. 1999
Formatted in HTML 2000 11 03 —WHS