Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More
Hundreds of years ago, educated people believed that our earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around the earth (rather than the other way around). When pioneering scientists like Galileo pointed out that this belief was inconsistent with the results of their observations and experiments and thus inconsistent with reality, theological leaders of the time reacted by imprisoning him in his house for years and forcing him to publicly recant his "heretical" statements. So the story goes, just moments after he was forced to publicly withdraw his statements that the earth revolved around the sun (rather than the other way around) and to publicly affirm the church’s belief that the earth stood motionless at the center of the universe, he is supposed to have muttered under his breath, “…and yet it (e.g., the earth) still moves.”
There are two morals to the Galileo story. The first is that the observable reality of things remains the same no matter how powerful people want to spin that reality. The second is that the scientific method of repeated careful observation and experimental manipulation of things is the best method people have generated for discovering reality. As we are all aware today, it turns out that Galileo was right and that the earth does indeed spin around the sun, rather than the other way around.
I was reminded of the Galileo story this morning when I read in the New York Times an article titled, "Outed Pastor ‘Completely Heterosexual’" . Apparently, Ted Haggard (former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, etc. who fell from grace a few months ago after it was revealed that he had repeatedly engaged in homosexual sexual activities with a prostitute and illegal methamphetamine possession/use) is now declaring himself to be a reformed man, free of any tendency to find men attractive and/or to want to have sex with them.
The article has commentary by a psychiatrist, one Dr. Jack Drescher of New York state, to the effect that Mr. Haggard’s declaration is, "not consistent with clinical presentations, but totally consistent with theological belief". This delicately worded quote allows a good window into the mental health provider’s view of this situation while also being ever so careful to not offend.
If I was to re-phrase Dr. Drescher’s statement so as to make it clearer and less delicate, I would suggest that clinicians never see a homosexual person turn into a heterosexual person; it just doesn’t occur in the normal occurrence of clinical practice, and there is no known therapy or intervention that can alter someone’s sexual orientation. Which is to say, this claim of conversion is either so highly implausible and unlikely that it probably has not actually occurred, or it is evidence of divine intervention; a special exception to the normal course of reality. Which suggests Mr. Haggard is so in denial that he is lying to himself and, perhaps inadvertently, to his public, or that he is especially blessed. Occam’s razor (e.g., "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one") suggests the former over the later.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of homosexual people who find their homosexuality disturbing and wish it would go away; there surely are many such people. There are plenty of cases where people who are homosexual end up in emotional distress (sometimes to the point of suicide). There are also plenty of cases where people who are homosexual cease to act out homosexual behaviors. Ceasing to act on homosexual impulses does not make those impulses go away, however.
In the normal course of things, people’s adult sexuality orientations tend to be rather constant in nature. People who are primarily homosexual tend to stay that way, and vice versa, people who are primarily heterosexual tend to stay that way too. There are also many people who can go either way, and they tend to stay that way too. Remember, we’re talking about desire and interest here; not actual behavior. There are uncounted homosexually oriented people out there who enter into heterosexual relationships because this is what is expected of them and therefore what they end up expecting of themselves. Later in life, some portion of these people leave those heterosexual relationships and take up homosexual relationships. Such change does not indicate any alteration in their fundamental sexual desires, so much as it does a change in how free such people feel to express and act upon those desires at different stages of their lives.
The best evidence today suggests that sexual orientation is something that gets fixed or fixated in utero (before birth) as a consequence of mother’s normal hormonal fluctuations. It is thus a biologically determined thing that gets burned into the brain during the formation of the body. It is a normal animal variation on sexuality; and something that occurs in many animal species besides human beings. It is most definitely not a disease to be gay or a malfunction or a mutation, but rather something that evolution has provided for, for its own inscrutable reasons.
In this light, Haggard’s claim to have reformed his sexuality is implausible. Haggard certainly is capable of reforming his actions, but it is quite unlikely that he (or any other person, homo or hetero or bisexual) will successfully be able to alter his/their desires. It is the desire to be with another person of the same sex that makes someone homosexual; not how they act. If we are to give Haggard’s announcement the benefit of the doubt, we might say that the best he can hope for is to remain a homosexual man who does not act on his desires.