Sexuality and Gender

Can Homosexuals Change Their Orientation?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 03/29/2012

You may have seen the sign, “Some people are gay. Get over it!” But I’d like to change it: “Some people used to be gay. Get over that.”

Many people don’t believe it, though. They believe the discussion is over. The “experts” have spoken. Sexual orientation is an inborn and immutable trait like eye color. Change is not possible. Case closed.

But this is an incredible assertion. If it can be demonstrated that just one person has changed, it would falsify the claim. It turns out that not only is change possible, but there are multiple and independent lines of evidence to warrant such a belief.

First, it should be noted that people reported change was possible thousands of years ago. The sixth chapter in the biblical book of 1 Corinthians states that some of the inhabitants of the city of Corinth were homosexuals. But the passage goes on to say, “Such were some of you…” indicating that some of them were able to change (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

I realize that some people will dismiss this account, claiming they don’t believe the Bible is the word of God. But one doesn’t have to believe in the divine authorship of scripture in order to accept this account of changed lives. The epistle to the Corinthian church is, at the very least, a first century letter to a community of people in a city which still exists in modern Greece. It is a historical correspondence between Paul of Tarsus and the Corinthians. It is highly unlikely that Paul could get away with making false claims about the changed lives of people who live in the city where the letter was publicly read.

Second, many reputable scientists who are experts in the field have testified that change is possible. Dr. Robert Spitzer, who has been called the most influential psychiatrist of the 20th century (more than 275 publications to his credit), published a peer-reviewed paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The purpose of his study was to evaluate the claim that homosexual orientation is immutable and, consequently, change is impossible.

Spitzer indicated that of the 200 people in the study, many of them increased in the frequency and satisfaction of heterosexual activity. He also noted that, “Almost all of the participants reported substantial changes in the core aspects of sexual orientation, not merely overt behavior.” More significantly, 11% of the men and 37% of the women reported complete change. Spitzer said that these results go beyond, “anecdotal information and provide evidence that reparative therapy is sometimes successful.” Moreover, he concluded that, “This study provides evidence that some gay men and lesbians are able to also change the core features of sexual orientation.”[1]

But what about the claim that this kind of therapy is harmful? According to Spitzer, there wasn’t evidence of harm. “To the contrary,” he said. The participants reported that therapy, “Was helpful in a variety of ways beyond changing sexual orientation itself.”

The obvious response would be to dismiss Spitzer as an anti-gay homophobe. But this is a man who has fought for homosexual causes. Spitzer was the architect behind the movement in 1973 to remove homosexuality as an illness from psychiatry’s manual of mental disorders (referred to as the DSM). This was a monumental milestone in the history of gay rights spearheaded by Spitzer himself.

Dr. Nicholas Cummings is another researcher who affirms that change is possible. He was the past president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and served as Chief of Mental Health at Kaiser Permanente for 20 years. While serving in that capacity, he personally saw over 2,000 patients with same-sex attraction (SSA) and his staff saw another 16,000. You can read more about his impeccable credentials here. I met him in November 2011, where he told an audience of clinicians that he personally saw hundreds of people change their sexual orientation and estimated that 7% of the 16,000 patients his staff saw experienced successful reorientation. Many of them went on to marry and live heterosexual lives.

Dr. Cummings is another clinician that can’t be dismissed. He has been a champion of gay rights and, while serving as President of the APA, appointed the APA’s first Task Force on Lesbian and Gay Issues.

But these two researchers are just the tip of the iceberg. There have been clinicians and other scientists who have known that change is possible and have been reporting it for over 100 years. Jean-Martin Charcot, known as the father of modern neurology, wrote about how “the homosexual became heterosexual” through his treatments back in 1882. Sigmund Freud would later report change in sexual orientation using psychoanalysis in the 1920s. Researchers continued to report these findings throughout the 20th century: Wilhelm Stekel in the 1930s, Frank Caprio and Albert Ellis in the 1950s, Russell Monroe and Edward Glover in the 1960s, Irving Bieber in the 1970s, Karolynn Siegel in the 1980s, and Houston MacIntosh in the 1990s to name just a few.

With this long history of evidence, it’s not surprising that a recent psychiatry textbook, Essential Psychopathology & Its Treatment, concluded that homosexual orientation can be changed and that therapy isn’t necessarily harmful. The section addressing this topic states:

While many mental health care providers and professional associations have expressed considerable skepticism that sexual orientation could be changed with psychotherapy and also assumed that therapeutic attempts at reorientation would produce harm, recent empirical evidence demonstrates that homosexual orientation can indeed be therapeutically changed in motivated clients, and that reorientation therapies do not produce emotional harm when attempted (e.g., Byrd & Nicolosi, 2002; Byrd et al., 2008; Shaeffer et al., 1999; Spitzer, 2003).

Given the existence of this clinical research, it would follow that there should be thousands of people who have reported change. And there are. Every year more individuals come out and publicly declare that although they lived as homosexuals for significant periods of time, they no longer are today. This might not constitute peer-reviewed research, but it is worth noting the sheer number of people who claim they have changed.

How can anyone deny that change is possible given all the evidence from psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, peer-reviewed studies, and personal testimonies? I’ll tell you how. One would have to believe that every clinician who treated homosexuality during the 19th and 20th centuries has lied about their professional work and deceived the readers of their published studies. Therapists around the world who treat homosexuality today would also have to be dishonest about their patient outcomes. Every religious and secular organization that provides counseling to homosexuals would be fraudulent about their results. Every homosexual – thousands of them around the world – who is now living as a heterosexual is just faking it. And every friend and person I’ve met over the years who has claimed to have changed has been misleading me. This would entail a massive and well-orchestrated scheme to deceive vast numbers of people around the world. One would have to believe all that deception is occurring in order to believe that homosexuals can’t change.

Does everyone who tries to change succeed? No. In fact, many people fail. Is it an easy process for those who achieve a measure of change? Absolutely not. Does change always entail complete transformation? Rarely. Do some people return to homosexuality? Of course. But this is the case with treating any condition (depression, alcoholism, personality disorders, etc.). The question, however, is whether it is possible for some to experience substantial and enduring change? The answer is a definite yes. That’s good news, given that there are many people with unwanted SSA. They have hope.

The bad news is that there are many advocates that are extremely hostile towards these change efforts and would deny some homosexuals the right to self-determination. These are the same people who allegedly champion diversity. But ironically, not only do they deny that change is possible, they deny those who have changed even exist.

Though homosexuality is nothing new, neither is the ability of some people to change. I’m not suggesting we try to change every homosexual, but we can give hope to those with unwanted SSA. It’s a hope that many have realized and, as a result, have turned to others who want to change and offered them the truth and compassion they desperately need.

[1] Spitzer, R. L., “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation? 200 participants reporting a change from homosexual to heterosexual orientation,” in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2003, 403–417.