Does the American Psychological Association Want Gays to Switch Churches?

What a new report from the American Psychological Association really says about religious gays.

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Warren Throckmorton is associate professor of psychology at Grove City College . He is the coauthor of the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework and writes a daily blog . While Dan's away, we've asked a selection of prominent guest bloggers from a variety of perspectives to give their thoughts on religion and public life.

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released a task force report that provides guidance to psychologists about how they should respond to clients who have moral distress over being gay or bisexual. Most of these conflicts, the panel found, were religious in nature and lead some people to seek therapies that attempt to reorient homosexual attractions to heterosexuality. Regarding these change efforts, the APA task force reported that "there is insufficient evidence to support the use of psychological interventions to change sexual orientation." On that basis, the APA recommended that therapists should "avoid telling clients they can change from gay to straight."

What, then, can therapists do? The APA report gives copious guidance on working with religious same-sex attracted people who believe homosexual behavior violates their faith. Some such persons might remain in a like-minded church, while others might leave for a gay-affirming church. However, does the APA report encourage therapists to push people to change churches?

Apparently, some religious conservatives believe so. A news report from OneNewsNow, the information arm of the American Family Association, said the APA report "suggests that if a person with same-gender attractions has problems because of their religious beliefs, they should just change churches." About the APA report, David Pruden, spokesperson for the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality and executive director of Evergreen International, a ministry to homosexuals of the LDS Church, told OneNewsNow:

"The suggestion was as a Christian, when your conscience comes in conflict with what's going on in your life—temptations, attractions, concerns, whatever they happen to be—that what you simply do is jettison your standards so that it becomes easier to live with your temptations."

Both OneNewsNow and Mr. Pruden stand by their statements. But is it accurate to say that the APA report advises that conflicted people switch churches or "jettison" beliefs?

Not at all, says Rhea Farberman, a spokesperson for the APA. When I asked her if the APA recommends that same-sex attracted people switch churches to resolve their conflicts, she told me that ". . . the APA is not recommending a particular, one size will fit all outcome. To the contrary, the report emphasizes that therapy should be client-centered; different clients will have different priorities and therefore different goals for the therapy.

"The report does not recommend that people 'change churches.' The report advises that gay and lesbian people for whom religion is important should investigate all of their spiritual options."

So how did the idea that the APA recommended a church swap get started? One possible source for this impression is the initial Associated Press story by David Crary. Many newspapers and websites carried the abbreviated version of Crary's article, which began by saying psychologists shouldn't tell people they can change orientation, followed by:

"Instead, psychologists should tell patients that if their religion and sexual orientation conflict, they should consider options such as celibacy or switching churches."

In the print version of the story in the August 6 edition of USA Today, the story ends there. The way the AP article reads, one could get the impression that the APA was advising therapists to direct clients toward a certain type of church.

In any case, a careful reading of the APA report does not lead to the conclusion that psychologists should advise clients to change their religion or give up beliefs in the face of conflicts over sexuality. This misconception is unfortunate, since some religious readers are deeply distrustful of the mental health professions already.

In fact, the APA report demonstrates respect for a variety of religious outcomes. For instance, the APA report said that people found benefit in both gay-affirming and nonaffirming support groups. On page 48, the task force wrote:

"Increasing social support through psychotherapy, self-help groups, or welcoming communities (ethnic communities, social groups, religious denominations) may relieve some distress. For instance, participants reported benefits from mutual support groups, both sexual-minority affirming and ex-gay [nonaffirming] groups."

The task force report did not recommend that clients abandon their beliefs. In the executive summary, various outcomes are envisioned:

". . . [A]n affirmative approach is supportive of clients' identity development without an a priori treatment goal concerning how clients identify or live out their sexual orientation or spiritual beliefs. This type of therapy can provide a safe space where the different aspects of the evolving self can be acknowledged, explored, and respected and potentially rewoven into a more coherent sense of self that feels authentic to the client, and it can be helpful to those who accept, reject, or are ambivalent about their same-sex attractions."

The APA recognizes that some people will accept, reject or remain conflicted about homosexual urges. Therapists are encouraged to respect the reality of both sexual desire and religious commitments in working out individual answers.