Out There – Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry’s documentary Out There is getting a fair amount of attention. This clip in particular has been of interest to many. Fry interviews Daniel Gonzalez, who identifies himself as a former patient of Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi is also interviewed, as is Gonzalez’s mother.

The viewer sees some of the claims that get so much attention in conservative Christian circles, such as those around etiology: that the cause of a homosexual orientation is trauma-based and the result of Nurture (poor parent-child relationships).

I have met so many parents who have been told that their failures caused their child’s sexual orientation, and I have known many parents who are more than willing to accept this, as they are hungry for answers to their son or daughter’s same-sex sexuality. In contrast to this view, the American Psychological Association offers what I think is a more accurate account of the state of our knowledge at this time when when it concluded:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

The other statement that stood out to me in the interview is about change. I have heard from a number of ministry leaders this same estimate: that one-third are cured (improve to the point of heterosexuality); one-third significant improvement; and one-third no such improvement.

It is so important to conduct well-designed research to answer these kinds of questions in part because people hope to hear an answer that resonates with they want for themselves or a loved one. My own work that followed people who sought change through Christian ministries paints a different picture. We don’t really talk about percentages, although we did offer qualitative categorizations for people to get a rough sense of what people were saying. (Also, we were looking at ministry not professional therapy, so there is a difference there as well.)

When we published our results in book form (after three years of attempted change at that specific ministry), the only way to get to an estimated one-third of success would be if we include the ability to live a chaste life, which represented a significant number of people – more so than the change to heterosexuality group. (Chastity here referred to a reduction in same-sex desires that made living a chaste life more of a possibility/less of a burden.) We indicated that this counts as success from a Christian ministry standpoint insofar as it reflects a traditional Christian sexual ethic; however, it might not be what a person had been hoping for or expecting at the start of their ministry involvement, and it is not the same kind of success as claims of heterosexuality.

The success that is referenced in the documentary (referred to as “cure”) was reported by a much smaller number of people in the study I worked on, and even in those cases the people shared that they experienced same-sex attraction from time to time, which was a point of much criticism and discussion when the results were first presented. (When we reported results after seven years, we get different percentages still, but with the number of people we could not report on due to the decisions they made to discontinue in the study, it makes it all the more challenging to say these represent what the average person can expect from participating in a ministry.)

I was also struck by the statement that more adolescents are coming for therapy. My own experiences have been different. I have found that many adolescents are not nearly as concerned about this as are their parents. Some teens do come in for services, certainly, but often to get their parents to meet with a psychologist who can provide them (the parents) with support. In all cases, however, a minor has to give assent to any services rendered, which is meant to safeguard parents insisting on one course of treatment against the wishes of their teenage son or daughter.

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