Ex-Gay Project Fails

Rob Tisinai

September 28th, 2011

The National Organization “for” Marriage is trumpeting a new survey about changing your sexual orientation, based on “religiously-mediated” involvement in Christian conversion ministries:

Many professional voices proclaim that it is impossible to change homosexual orientation, and that the attempt to change is commonly and inherently harmful…

The results show change to be possible for some, and the attempt not harmful on average.

I don’t have access to the full survey, but the researchers have summarized the results.  Here’s how it turned out after 6 to 7 years of tracking participants:

98 The number of subjects when the study began: 72 men and 26 women.
37 The number of subjects who dropped out of the study and did not report their results. I don’t think we can count any of them as an ex-gay “win.”
12 The number who stopped trying to change, and embraced their gay identity.
18 The number who were reportedly chaste, “with substantive dis-identification with homosexual orientation.”

In other words, they’ve managed to stop having sex, and don’t think about getting same-sex down-and-dirty as much as they used to.

This isn’t a change in orientation, any more than a straight person is no longer straight because they’ve used prayer to become celibate and partially push some of their sexual feelings underground.

17 The number who apparently stayed with the study, but whose outcomes are not described in the summary. Presumably, they’re not clear ex-gay “wins” either.
14 The number who reported “successful ‘conversion’ to heterosexual orientation and functioning.”

That’s a meager 14% success rate.

Or is it? Let’s learn more about those 14 people.

First, it’s probably not 14.  The study cautions us that the 14 conversions and 18 celibates represent “likely overly optimistic projections of anticipated success.”

In other words — less than 14 actual conversions.

But wait.  Check out what “conversion” means:

Most of the individuals who reported that they were heterosexual at Time 3 did not report themselves to be without experience of homosexual arousal, and did not report heterosexual orientation to be unequivocal and uncomplicated.

You know what they call straight people who experience homosexual arousal, and whose orientation is at most equivocal?  Bisexual. Most of the 14 heterosexual “conversions” seem to be bisexuals.

This leaves us with at most — at most — 6 individuals who went from gay to straight (as of now, at least; who knows where they’ll be in another 7 years).


And the authors aren’t willing to go even that far.  Their single-sentence summary:

In short, the results do not prove that categorical change in sexual orientation is possible for everyone or anyone, but rather that meaningful shifts along a continuum that constitute real changes appear possible for some.

Wow.  Out of 98 highly-motivated subjects, the authors found that a small, unspecified number can use prayer and counseling to shut down their sexual feelings or become a bit more bi.  And possibly none who turned straight.

Frankly, I’m surprised they couldn’t find more.  The authors claim their results:

…challenge the commonly expressed views of the mental health establishment that change of sexual orientation is impossible or very uncommon…

Actually, it looks more like the results confirm those views.  If the antigay camp sees this as vindication and victory, they must be even more desperate than I thought.

UPDATE: I’m abashed to say that Timothy Kincaid has already covered this here at Box Turtle Bulletin, and in far more depth. You can check out his series of articles here.


September 28th, 2011

Rose: Can I ask a dumb question?

Dorothy: Better than anyone else I know.

Why do you never hear of Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, or Indigenous faiths actively attempting to convert people from their innate orientations?

Odd that of the Abrahamic Faiths, one of the three does not, namely the Jewish…


September 28th, 2011

An additional point is the placebo effect. There was no control group, so it’s possible that the so-called “changes” weren’t even statistically significant.


September 28th, 2011

I have been wondering greatly, since these “studies” started spurting up, whether those people trying to prove we can change are really inadvertently helping some folks get in touch with their inner “bi”.

This too would be an advancement of sexuality/orientation science, IMNSHO.


September 28th, 2011

For the record, a medical product with a 14% success rate might get approval from the FDA, but I think the agency would want a little more analysis as to the characteristics of the “success” group – i.e., can you target the “treatment” to the right group. On the other hand, a 6% success rate wouldn’t get a hearing.


September 28th, 2011

I assume that the people who signed up were highly motivated to change their sexual orientation. With a so-called 14% success rate, I would consider it a total failure. For the most part everyone is indoctrinated that being straight is the norm. And, the basic fact is that no one knows why we have a homosexual orientation. We did not chose and should not be made to feel guilty about our sexual orientation.

Timothy Kincaid

September 28th, 2011

Did NOM mention that one of the few successes came back later (after the research but before publishing) and said that he never was a success, but that he so wanted to be and to please them that he gave the answers that he did?

Interestingly, Jones and Yarhouse went into the project full supporters of ex-gay therapy. They wrote up their findings in as sunshine-happy way that they could but they didn’t lie.

And now … well, let’s just say that neither one of them seems much of a cheerleader anymore.

Unlike some anti-gay “researchers” they weren’t willing to create bogus results. And they were just a bit too honest to lie to themselves.

They remain theologically opposed to gay behavior or identity but perhaps they are the two people whom Exodus changed the most.

Jim Burroway

September 28th, 2011

Don’t be so abashed, Rob. A good reprise is always welcome.


September 29th, 2011

@Timothy Kincaid:

Is there a link to that story on the “converted” guy who came forward?

On the study,I can’t help but notice that the authors retreat to the same deliberately vague verbiage that Exodus employs, i.e., “change” is “possible”. That is intended to convey that a gay person has a reasonable chance of converting to straight. What it actually means is that after years of effort and religious conversion, a shift of any magnitude on the Kinsey scale might be the outcome for at least one human being on the planet.

It is also worth noting that these participants are an extremely motivated and very religious group. Not only are they pursuing conversion, but they have stuck with the effort for at least 7 years if not longer. I believe that they were still in the program at the time the study last reported in. They are dramatically unrepresentative of the general population or the gay population.

Whatever % actually converted greater than zero would have absolutely no bearing on expected results when such efforts are applied to the population of gays and lesbians. It would make as much sense to say that because 5% of applicants for the US Special Forces – drawn from volunteers from the very best of the 3 branches of the armed forces – actually make it, there is a 5% chance for any American to make it in.

I’d also note that this is all self-reported. No participant has any incentive to report failure and all have great incentives to report success. Reporting failure means undermining the program and discouraging gays from seeking healing in Christ, and so arguably is itself sinful. And reporting failure means disappointing the program’s leaders and shaming oneself with respect to other participants. And if this weren’t enough, both authors of the study to whom the data are provided are conservative Christians. This is not to say that the responses are skewed; it is only to note that all the incentives to misreport flow in one direction.

Patrick Hogan

September 29th, 2011

NOM, as is their custom with things that for which they want plausible deniability in the public sphere but which they want to get out to their followers, posted the link and excerpt without independent comment. The excerpt, of course, avoided the cautions that the success numbers are presumed by the authors to be overly-optimistic, that 40% of the participants have dropped out, that the population was highly motivated and small, and that the authors have explicitly stated that the results do not mean that anyone — much less everyone — can change from gay to straight, or that any given individual can change at all.

It’s also worth noting that there are independent, fairly reliable means of determining physiological attraction — such as MRI scans while viewing selected images designed to stimulate attraction response. I have yet to hear of any ex-gay who is willing to use such means to prove a change in orientation. Why — if they are being honest about a change in orientation rather than simply a change in behavior — has no ex-gay submitted to such a test?

Priya Lynn

September 29th, 2011

Outstanding posts, Theo and Patrick.

Mark F.

September 29th, 2011

Nobody really disputes that motivated people can change their behavior, but being celibate or forcing oneself to have sex with the opposite sex is not a change of orientation. It’s pretty simple.


September 30th, 2011

I’d like to suggest, as I have in the past, that BTB do one of its in-depth pieces on the motive behind the big emphasis on mutability. The motives of the conflicted homosexuals who want to resolve that conflict by becoming heterosexual are clear enough. But why are all the anti-gay groups so heavily focused on this issue, even when it becomes clear that actual orientation change – assuming it is ever possible – is an uncommon occurrence and would not eliminate or even substantially reduce the number of homosexuals in the populace?

The answer is that these groups believe or pretend to believe that civil rights protections only extend to groups defined by immutable characteristics and religion (which they claim gets included because it is mentioned in the Constitution). This is simply a lie. It has no bearing in reality. Mutability is not a prerequisite for civil rights protection. Civil rights are creations of statute and can be bestowed upon whatever group a legislature wants to protect. For example, federal law protects against discrimination based on the mutable condition of pregnancy – which include both being pregnant and not being pregnant. Colorado protects workers from being discriminated against based on their recreational activities. California forbids discrimination against workers who speak out on matters of public policy. And there are many, many examples.

Mutability is one non-decisive factor in one component of judicial analysis of an Equal Protection Clause claim. But even in that context, groups defined by mutable characteristics may receive greater judicial protection while other groups with immutable characteristics may receive the minimum.

The whole argument is a deception and the Christian Right gets away with it b/c they know that Americans are ignorant about their legal system and are not going to parse the issue.

The main issue is not whether a small number of homosexuals somewhere in the world have truly converted after 7 years of religiously motivated effort. The issue is whether homosexual orientation is a fundamental part of a person’s identity and is not something that can be altered as a matter of convenience. So I think that we should turn these results around. Rather than let the other side turn this into a game of “gotcha” in which even 1 genuine conversion proves that homosexuality is mutable, I think we should argue that, even assuming the study is legitimate and the results accurate, such a low success rate following such a long treatment period for a highly motivated group proves that homosexuality is not mutable for the vast majority of gays. Consider: if it were suddenly possible for 1 in 1,000 African Americans to “turn white” if only they would alter their self-identity, change their religion, and listen to Pat Boone music 3X/week for 7 years, would that justify striking African Americans from civil rights laws or recognizing them as a discrete group in society?

Priya Lynn

September 30th, 2011

You’re one smart cookie, Theo.


September 30th, 2011

If I had to listen to Pat Boone music 3X/week for 7 years I’d turn into something like the Hollywood characterization of a doe-eyed lunatic. Eventually I’d look like the person in Munch’s The Scream.

But, really, Theo hit the nail on the head with: “…Americans are ignorant about their legal system…”


October 8th, 2011

Change in attractions is possible and there’s no such thing as homosexual orientation…humans are heterosexual. This is plain as day.


November 3rd, 2011

Sorry Johnny, but that crap doesn’t fly over here.

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