Archived Sections, Commentary

Tim Fisher responds to Dr. Strommen

Tim Fisher, a writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota, offered this response to Merton Strommen:
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When searching for the middle ground between opposing positions, each of which touts conclusive scientific proof, one needs to take great pains to be fair to the complexity of the arguments. We must rely on our experts—our scientists, our authors, our leaders—to apprehend the arguments critically and thoroughly. In The Church and Homosexuality (2001, Kirk House Publishers), Dr. Merton Strommen fails on both these counts. Dr. Strommen seriously mishandles the research in a number of ways. In fact, his book is characterized by such missteps. I have room here to discuss only a few instances.
One of the issues Strommen fails to assess adequately is a treatment called (variously) reparative therapy, conversion therapy, ex-gay ministry, or re-orientation therapy. This therapy purports to change a person’s sexual behavior and/or orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. In his book, and in his Counterpoint article published in the August Metro Lutheran, Strommen calls special attention to a paper written by Warren Throckmorton called “Attempts to Modify Sexual Orientation: A Review of Outcome Literature and Ethical Issues” (Journal of Mental Health Counseling, October, 1998). Throckmorton argues for the proven efficacy of conversion therapies. What Strommen neglects to account for, in any substantive way, is why the great majority of the scientific community contradicts Throckmorton’s conclusions. It does so for good reasons. Many researchers, such as Charles Silverstein, John Gonsiork, Gerald Davison, Jack Dresher, and Douglas Haldeman, have thoroughly discredited the methodologies of those studies (Throckmorton’s review included) claiming to prove successful “shifts” from a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual. As Haldeman writes,
The [conversion therapy] studies all rely on clients’ self-reported outcomes or on therapists’ post-treatment evaluations. As a result, all conversion therapy studies are biased in favor of “cures” because clients of conversion therapy are likely to believe that homosexuality is an undesirable trait to admit and may feel pressure to tell their therapist that the treatment has been successful. [See the December, 1999 issue of Angles: The Policy Journal of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies.]
Self-reports, particularly self-reports dealing with sexual behavior stigmatized by large portions of society, have been shown to be notoriously unreliable.
A second problem with the works cited by both Strommen and Throckmorton is their muddling of the important distinction between, and interaction of, homosexual orientation and behavior. (“Orientation,” in overly-simplistic, layman’s terms, might be likened to “desire,” and “behavior” generally refers to having sex.) For instance, both Strommen and Throckmorton happily cite the work of L. Birk, a therapist whom they say has logged one of the best records of “helping homosexually-oriented people reduce or overcome their homosexual tendencies” (Strommen, p. 54). Yet here is what Birk himself has to say about those who have accomplished “solid heterosexual shifts”:
Most, if not all, people who have been homosexual continue to have some homosexual feelings, fantasies, and interests. More often than not, they also have occasional, or more than occasional, homosexual outlets, even while being “happily married.” (Birk, 1980)
Such confusion between orientation and behavior is endemic to the conversion therapy literature. As Haldeman notes, “with almost all . . . conversion studies, successful outcome was defined as capacity for heterosexual intercourse.” Such outcomes are far from achieving the “orientation reversal” claimed by the studies cited by Throckmorton. Indeed, gay men have been marrying and having sex with straight women for thousands of years, a situation which has caused no end to their gayness nor to personal heartache and family tragedy.
If Strommen disagrees with the strong preponderance of the scientific evidence against conversion therapy—a literature which informs the policies and guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, The Interfaith Alliance, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and National Education Association (there are others, including the Surgeon General)—why doesn’t he argue the merits of his case, or at least re-present the arguments of those who can? In fact, he does not mention any of the scholarship that finds ample, grievous fault with conversion therapies, much less assess it critically. Instead, he complains of a unfriendly political climate.
To be fair, it should be pointed out that Throckmorton does address the criticism. But he does so unconvincingly. For instance, he suggests that since the limitations of client self-reports make it difficult to determine sexual orientation, therapists should therefore give even more credence to this method, as it is usually the only tool therapists have. This reasoning is just plain silly. The appropriate response to a limited methodology is to recognize its weaknesses, not emphasize them.
Strommen also mishandles the research in regard to the relative health of what he calls “the homosexual lifestyle.” Seeking to demonstrate the bad health of homosexuality, Strommen cites one of the “most careful studies” that have looked at same-sex relationships: a 1984 book called The Male Couple: How Relationships develop by D. McWhirter and A. Mattison. Strommen reports, correctly, that out of the 156 male couples studied, “only seven had been able to maintain sexual fidelity.” But had Strommen’s own apprehension of this study been even half as careful as the study itself, he would have noted McWhirter and Mattison’s strong caution against using their research to paint a picture of the gay community at large. The authors write,
We always have been very careful to explain that the very nature of our research sample [gays living in San Diego during the sexual revolution of the 1970s] . . . prevents the findings from being applicable and generalizable to the entire gay male community.
Of course, this doesn’t mean their research is useless in helping us understand the dynamics of gay relationships. Far from it. But it does mean it is scientifically unsound to apply the study’s statistics to the population in general, which, in effect, is the only use Strommen makes of it. Indeed, a more recent study has generated statistics looking much different. In an issue of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services (Vol. 1, #2, 1994), researchers Bryant and Demian report that 63 percent of study participants (gay, male) reported being involved in monogamous relationships; 78 percent reported a frequency in extra-relationship sex of zero. Of course, this study is as vulnerable to “self-report” bias as any other—yet it invites us to ask why Strommen didn’t include any mention of this research in his book.
And had Strommen presented a reasonably careful and critical report of McWhirter and Mattison’s book, he would have included a few words about what the authors refer to as one of their study’s “most useful findings.” They write,
Antihomosexual attitudes influence [gay] relationships and . . . lives. These attitudes include ignorance about homosexuality, prejudice against themselves or other homosexual people, homophobia itself, self-oppression, and oppression by others.
Strommen leaves this out of his discussion, and in doing so he does injustice to the very research he wishes to highlight. If we value the things that marriage and other religious and social institutions can do for heterosexuals, it should be no surprise that the people who are not allowed proper entrance into those institutions—the people who are instead belittled for loving who, and how, they love—may not always end up in the same place as straight society. Indeed, anyone wishing to discover what research can teach us about the details of gay relationships would not have neglected this feature of the McWhirter and Mattison’s study.
The nuances of the research on gays and lesbians and their relationships are important and should not be easily dismissed. What the church needs to hear are the voices of people willing to sweat the details. In these very details we will find both God and the devil, and we must be ready to recognize both if we are going to shed any light on the perplexing issues before the church.