can sexual orientation be changed?

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We’ve been working through a series of posts on preconceived ideas that I held about the LGBTQ+ community. Last week, we tackled “Does the church hate gay people?” and the week prior, “Is being gay a choice?”

I’ve seen the Lord dismantle many of these ideas over the past years, and I realized that most of my thoughts were common to churched adults. If that is you, read on. I also often use the phrase “gay community” as a shorthand for the LGBTQ+ community. There is no intent to disregard the experience of people that would not identify as “gay.” Just a form of shorthand.

This week, the preconceived idea we are going to tackle is change. What does change look like in the area of same-gender attraction? Or, can same-gender attraction/being gay be changed? And is that change becoming heterosexual? And is heterosexuality God’s goal for us?

For the sake of discussion, I am only going to address the Church’s response to this. In your free time, feel free to look up how the APA (American Psychological Association) has changed on this over the years. Since we have enough to keep us busy with the Church, let’s focus on that.

Last week, we walked through a timeline regarding the Church and the LGBTQ community. In particular, I want to focus on the work of Exodus International and “ex-gay” therapy or reparative therapy.

When I entered this conversation some 10 years ago now, I would say that the sum of my knowledge was “Exodus helps gay people to not be gay.” That was what I had learned — or breathed in through the air — at church. And in writing this, I do not want to negate some productive counseling work done through Exodus and other such ministries. I’m a fan of counseling, as I’ve seen how a trained person can weed through years of dysfunction and draw out healthy responses and encourage Spirit-filled living. So in writing, I specifically want to focus on the ‘ex-gay’ philosophy that, I believe, the Church still embraces to some extent.

I remember reading a friend’s blog years ago about her experience of being same-sex attracted (the phrase she used at that time). She referenced a book named Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. He was really the first person that articulated for me the ideas that:

Not everyone experiencing attraction to the same gender was sexually abused.

Not everyone with this experience had a poor parental relationship.

And not everyone who prayed about it experienced a change in orientation towards heterosexuality.

I vividly remember reading sections of the book over and over, sitting and praying, and then reading again. I woke my husband up one morning to read him a portion to discuss. (He loves those mornings!)

I began to think deeply and with nuance — a word I barely knew at that point. I began to ponder such a jumble of things that it is hard to even articulate them! Questions like:

  • How does an attraction to the same sex come about?

  • Would God leave someone with their same-gender attraction their whole life?

  • Do people choose their attractions?

  • What is reasonable change in the area of attractions?

Really, I could go on and on. My journal from that period of time is riddled with half-finished thoughts and sentences. Things I didn’t understand. Questions seemingly with no answers.

“Growing up” spiritually in my evangelical church, the simplified thought in my mind was “God does not want/did not intend for anyone to experience same -ex desire and hence would remove it if they asked sincerely”.

And you can put down the eggs to throw at me — I’m just saying aloud what many Christians believe. And if we don’t say it aloud, no one will change in their thinking.

And believe me, I want to see some things change.

Mark Yarhouse is a professor of psychology at Regent University and runs the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. Over the years, he has done extensive research in the area of sexual and gender identity. I embarked on reading his book Ex-Gays? (authored along with Stanton Jones), which journals a longitudinal study of religiously mediated change in sexual orientation. The principal goal of the study was to “test the universal claim that sexual orientation is unchangeable and immutable.”

My simplistic summary is that on one side were those who maintained that attempts at orientation change were harmful and useless, and the other side promoted the idea that orientation change could be reasonably expected with enough effort and prayer.

I say this is a simplistic summary, because it took me weeks and weeks to read through population, sample size, standards, research methods, and the like. My mind doesn’t naturally think in these terms.

Reading this book, as well as Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Christian, my mind began to wrap around several main ideas.

First, I began to grasp the idea that homosexual and heterosexual desires are experiences along a continuum that are also experienced differently by different individuals.

Second was the idea that the word “change” could mean a variety of shifts and was very hard to define.

Lastly was the idea that complete orientation change from homosexual to heterosexual was rarely seen.

I’ll quote directly from Homosexuality and the Christian, so as to not miss Yarhouse’s meanings in my attempt at summarizing:

“It appears that most people will not change their orientation, if by that we mean moving from ‘completely gay’ to ‘completely straight’. But change can occur along a continuum.”

“Change of orientation is rarely complete or categorical, and many of those who report change may still experience some attraction to the same sex at times.”

It seems to me that as Christians, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort with the underlying assumption that complete orientation change could be expected with enough faith, effort, and prayer. This does not seem to be true. And it is often not true of us heterosexual people when we ask God to remove specific temptations (or suffering of any kind, like Paul and his thorn in the flesh).

Because this has been the Church’s battle cry, we have hurt and alienated people deeply. I’ve read hundreds of accounts of individuals plagued by doubt and guilt, despite years of prayer and effort towards orientation change. Disappointed when they continued to experience desires for the same sex, they believed God to also be disappointed in them. I also don’t believe this to be true.

I have come to believe that we’ve missed the mark altogether in our focus on heterosexuality. I relayed a conversation with a friend in my previous post where she explains “Isn’t the goal the same for you and I? We are to both pursue holiness.” Truth.

Pressing towards holiness in our thoughts, actions, and desires is vastly different than pressuring people towards heterosexuality.

Decide for yourself how the Church should engage in this conversation in the coming years. We have the opportunity to change this landscape if we spend some effort and some thought.

Susan Titus